Friday, February 22, 2008

The Meaning of School Shootings: Part Two

In Part One, I used the NIU tragedy as a springboard to talk about school homicide in general and to ask the fundamental question: Why? Why do we care about school homicide if it’s so rare (the chances of being struck by lightning are far higher)? There was an unexplained rise in violent crime in America from about 1960 to the early 1990s (which has since fallen off). Demographics seem to explain about half that rise. We are discussing the possibility that violent media imagery (TV, movies, music, and video games) may have an effect, short and long term, upon users/viewers, especially younger ones.

Effects of Violent Media Imagery: Arousal
The 1996 study Mortal Kombat(tm): The Effects of Violent Videogame Play on Males’ Hostility and Cardiovascular Responding, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, investigates the relationship of video game play, violence of presented images, and subjects’ cardiovascular (CV) reactivity and hostility. Their conclusions include:

...increased game violence elicited greater CV reactivity and higher scores on hostility measures. Subjects who played MK1 or MK2 had higher heart rate reactivity than those who played billiards. Subjects who played MK2 showed greater systolic blood pressure reactivity than those who played MK1 or billiards. Finally, subjects who played MK2 scored higher on the hostility measures than those who played MK1, who in turn scored higher than those who played billiards.

In this study, MK1 is the standard version of Mortal Kombat and MK2 is the version with the extra gore turned on. Other studies have also found correlations between CV reactivity and hostility scores. Specifically, systolic blood pressure reactivity positively correlates with hostility scores on several inventories.






SBP = Systolic Blood Pressure, DBP = Diastolic Blood Pressure, HR = Heart Rate, ACL = Adjective Checklist, Bell = Bell Adjustment Inventory, Buss-Durkee = Buss-Durkee Hostility Inventory
*p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001

This “greater CV reactivity” is also called arousal. From Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill (Grossman and DeGaetano, 1999):

The faster and the more salient the violent imagery, the more likely it is that our kids will be in states of emotional arousal. It is the fast action and the quick cuts of today’s programming that keep the young brain on alert,in a way very similarly to the soldier who is on alert in the battlefield
While violent images are keeping our kids on alert, they just sit there. There is no way to release the energy building up inside them....How do our kids understand and disperse all the feelings that watching violence arouses? Unfortunately, most children and teens don’t get these vital opportunities. There’s no one around to talk with them at these crucial moments. As a society, we have deemed TV and videos our number one baby-sitter.
When children start off in an alarm state with high noradrenaline and impulsive behavior, they often revert to low noradrenaline levels and calculating behaviors.

The Influence of Media Violence on Youth, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest in 2003, is a meta-analysis of existing studies of violence in dramatic TV and movies, TV news, music videos and lyrics, video games, and internet participation, and of studies concerning the introduction of TV into communities. From the section titled Arousal and Excitation Transfer:

Media violence is exciting (arousing) for most youth. That is, it increases heart rate, the skin’s conductance of electricity, and other physiological indicators of arousal. There is evidence that this arousal can increase aggression in two different ways. First, arousal, regardless of the reason for it, can energize or strengthen whatever an individual’s dominant action tendency happens to be at the time, Thus, if a person is provoked or otherwise instigated to aggress at the time increased arousal occurs, heightened aggression can result....Second, if a person who is aroused misattributes his or her arousal to a provocation by someone else, the propensity to behave aggressively in response to that annoyance is increased. Thus, people tend to react more violently to provocations immediately after watching exciting movies than they do at other times.

Violence of viewed images correlates positively with arousal. Arousal correlates positively with hostility. Arousal also can cause reversion to lower levels of neurotransmitters like noradrenaline, which leads us directly to desensitization.

Effects of Violent Media Imagery: Desensitization
Influence of Media Violence on Youth defines emotional desensitization as "a reduction in distress-related physiological reactivity to observations or thoughts of violence" and goes on to explain:

...emotional desensitization occurs when people who watch a lot of media violence no longer respond with as much unpleasant physiological arousal as they did initially. Because the unpleasant physiological arousal (or negative emotional reactions) normally associated with violence has an inhibitory influence on thinking about violence, condoning violence, or behaving violently, emotional desensitization (i.e., the diminution of the unpleasant arousal) can result in a heightened likelihood of violent thoughts and behaviors (Huesmann et al., 2003)

Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill:

In American culture, toddlers as young as eighteen months begin with TV programs designed especially for them that contain twice as much violence as adult prime-time viewing.

In addition, violence on TV is rarely realistic or negatively contextualized. According to Influence of Media Violence, 96% of all violent television programs use aggression for simply entertaining the audience. Only 4% have an antiviolence theme. Nearly 40% of violent scenes involve humor, 75% of scenes feature no immediate punishment or condemnations for violence. Almost 45% of programs feature "bad" characters who are never or rarely punished for their aggressive actions. Of all violent scenes on TV, only 16% depict long-term realistic consequences of violence.

Why Does It Matter? It’s Hard to Kill

Despite assumptions of keyboard commandos everywhere, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (in On Killing, 1995, 1996) tells us that it's hard for people to kill each other, even in wartime. According to the best data available, soldiers in the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II had only about a 10-15% effective firing rate. Improved training and conditioning regimens during Korea, Vietnam, and since have raised the effective firing rate to 90-95%. All firing rates are for infantry using individual light weapons.

Grossman's model says that the ability of a human to kill depends upon five factors:

  • Demands of Authority
    • proximity of authority
    • respect for authority
    • intensity of demand for kill
    • legitimacy of authority
  • Group Absolution
    • identification with group
    • proximity of group
    • intensity of support for kill
    • number in immediate group
    • legitimacy of group
  • Predisposition of Killer
    • training / conditioning
    • recent experiences
    • temperament
  • Total Distance from Victim
    • physical distance
    • emotional distance (cultural, moral, social, mechanical)
  • Target Attractiveness of Victim
    • relevance of available strategies
    • relevance of victim
    • payoff (killer's gain, enemy's loss)

Classic military training methods emphasize the first two points: authority and the group. Modern military training methods concentrate on establishing distance and conditioning. Distance, whether physical, cultural, moral, social, or mechanical, correlates with ability to kill. Shooting from farther away makes it easier to kill, as does dehumanizing the enemy (emphasizing atrocities, calling them "gooks" or "dinks" or "huns" or "wogs"). Instead of learning to shoot on a Known Distance Range (KDR) with open grassy areas and bullseye targets, modern armies train soldiers in a “combat simulator” with pre-built firing positions and popup silhouette targets. Even primitive video games like Duck Hunt (with modified graphics and light guns that look like M-16s) are used to condition soldiers to fire upon targets without thinking. This conditioning is largely responsible for increasing the effective firing percentage of infantry with light weapons up to 90-95%.

The "Natural Soldier"
From On Killing:

Swank and Marchand's World War II study noted the existence of 2 percent of combat soldiers who are predisposed to be "aggressive psychopaths" and apparently do not experience the normal resistance to killing and the resultant psychiatric casualties associated with extended periods of combat. But the negative connotations associated with the term "psychopath," or its modern equivalent "sociopath," are inappropriate here, since this behavior is a generally desirable one for soldiers in combat.
It would be absolutely incorrect to conclude that 2 percent of all veterans are psychopathic killers. Numerous studies indicate that combat veterans are no more inclined to violence than nonvets. A more accurate conclusion would be that there is 2 percent of the male population that, if pushed or if given a legitimate reason, will kill without regret or remorse. What these individuals the capacity for the levelheaded participation in combat that we as a society glorify and that Hollywood would have us believe that all soldiers possess.

These "natural soldiers" (the term is popularized by Gwynne Dyer in War) are those who have no real problem killing under the right circumstances. Because natural soldiers go through the same training program as other soldiers, it is assumed that the difference between a natural and an average solider is temperament. Modern training methods are attempting to turn regular people into "natural soldiers" via conditioning. And while they succeed in increasing the firing rate, the increasing rate of PTSD suggests that conditioning isn't all that is necessary.

What's it All Mean?
Exposure to violent media imagery increases arousal. Increased arousal is a state many people find pleasant and desirable. Over time, increased levels of exposure are required to maintain a given level of arousal, a process called desensitization. Desensitization increases the "distance" between killer and victim and makes it easier to kill and reduces the psychiatric consequences. Conditioning reduces the resistance to killing without necessarily reducing the psychiatric consequences.

In the third and final part, I'll wrap this up with a discussion of the public health consequences of this desensitization and conditioning, talk about how certain types of video games contribute to the capability of shooters, and offer suggestions on reducing the effects of violent media exposure.