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Cumulative Media Effects - Observational Learning of Behaviors and Scripts, Observational Learning of Attitudes and Beliefs, Emotional Desensitization

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Researchers who study the effects of the mass media typically focus on the immediate, short-term effects of a particular program or movie. However, many of the effects of media exposure occur over the long term, with repeated exposure over time. One important area in which there is extensive evidence for cumulative effects is media violence.

By the 1970s, scholars concurred that early childhood exposure to media violence caused children to be more aggressive. As Leonard Eron and his associates wrote (1972, p. 262), “the weight of evidence… supports the theory that during a critical period in a boy’s development, regular viewing and liking of violent television lead to the formation of a more aggressive life style.” The consensus of scholarly opinion in this area prompted the U.S. Surgeon General to issue a warning in 1972 about the cumulative effects of viewing violence in the media.

While short-term stimulating effects of media violence have been found in people of all ages, cumulative long-term effects have generally only been observed in children. Although the processes that underlie these cumulative effects were unclear in 1972, they have since been elaborated. The five major processes are as follows: observational learning of behaviors and scripts, observational learning of attitudes and beliefs, emotional desensitization, cognitive justification processes, and cognitive cueing and priming.

Observational Learning of Behaviors and Scripts

Observational learning theory, as originally developed by Albert Bandura and his colleagues (1963, 1986), proposes that children develop habitual modes of behavior through imitation and vicarious reinforcement. Identification with the model, the perception that the behavior is realistic, and the perception that the model possesses valued characteristics, influence whether a child will imitate the model. Furthermore, direct reinforcement of the child’s own behavior leads to a continuation of imitated behavior patterns and resistance to extinction.

More recently, Rowell Huesmann (1998) extended the concept of observational learning to include the learning of social scripts, which are “programs” that children may employ automatically when they are faced with social problems. Often, after a script is suggested by an observation, the child fantasizes about behaving that way— making the use of the script even more likely.

Observational Learning of Attitudes and Beliefs

Television shapes schemas about how hostile the world is. Viewing television cultivates a sense of personal risk in the real world, according to George Gerbner and Larry Gross (1976). Compared to viewers who watch a small amount of television, viewers who watch a large amount of television are more anxious about becoming victims of violence (e.g., carrying weapons for protection), are less trusting of others, and are more likely to perceive the world as being a dangerous, mean, hostile place. Kenneth Dodge and Nicki Crick (1990) have demonstrated that such attributional biases foster a misinterpretation of the actions of others as being hostile and thus promote aggressive interactions.

Television violence changes normative beliefs about violence. In the United States and elsewhere, a “culture of violence” is said to exist, and a number of studies have shown that more aggressive children are less likely to believe that aggression and violence are wrong. Moreover, longitudinal studies have shown that early childhood exposure to television violence is related to normative beliefs that are more accepting of violence—even fifteen years later, during young adulthood.

Television violence produces a cognitive desensitization to violence. An inhibiting factor of aggressive and violent behaviors in socialized humans is that individuals are simply not “used” to violence. However, the more that individuals are exposed to it or even think about it, the more accustomed to it they become. Psychologists call this a cognitive desensitization to violence, and repeated exposures to television violence facilitate this process.

Emotional Desensitization

Just as repeated exposure to television violence has been shown to cause cognitive desensitization, emotional desensitization can also occur. In one quasi-experimental field study conducted by Victor Cline and his colleagues (1973), boys who regularly consumed a heavy diet of television displayed less physiological arousal in response to new scenes of violence than did control subjects. In another study, Ron Drabman and Margaret Thomas (1974) demonstrated that children who watched violence responded less emotionally afterward to other scenes of violence and tolerated such violence more. For most people, the arousal that is naturally stimulated by observing violent behaviors is unpleasant and, therefore, inhibits aggressive actions. However, once this arousal habituates, aggression is no longer inhibited.

Cognitive Justification Processes

The justification process is a psychological phenomenon that explains why people who are aggressive like to watch violent television. A child’s own aggressive behaviors normally should elicit guilt in the child because of the responses of others. However, for the child who watches a lot of television violence, this guilt is reduced by the recognition that “everyone is doing it.” The child who has behaved aggressively and watches violent television programs feels justified and does not try to stop behaving aggressively.

Cognitive Cueing and Priming

An important element of the cumulative effects of exposure to violence is the increase in the number of cues that become associated with violence for the viewer who watches a large amount of television. While the observational learning process explains how exposure to media violence leads to the acquisition of violent scripts, priming theory explains why such violent scripts are more likely to be used. Leonard Berkowitz and his colleagues (1967, 1984, 1993) have proposed that any cues that appear in violent videos become associated with violence and in the future can “prime” aggressive scripts. Just the sight of objects that have often been associated with violence, such as guns, primes the retrieval of aggressive scripts. Furthermore, as Wendy Josephson (1987) has shown, even an innocuous object (e.g., a walkie-talkie) that has been observed in a violent scene can subsequently stimulate aggression in a future encounter.

Longitudinal Research

The five processes described above help explain why the cumulative effects of media violence can be so strong for children. As Huesmann and his associates (1986, 1997, 1999) have shown in two separate studies, children who grow up watching a steady diet of media violence are significantly more at risk to behave violently as young adults than are comparable children who watch less violence. In one study, the children (at eight years of age) who watched more violence behaved more violently ten years later (when they were eighteen years of age), and again twelve years after that (when they were thirty years of age). In a second study, the children (six to eleven years of age) who watched more violence behaved more violently fifteen years later (when they were between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-six).


The five major processes that were discussed above probably account for most of the cumulative long-term effects of television violence on the behavior of a viewer. The processes are well-understood psychological processes that operate in all humans. The outcome of such processes is highly predictable: an increase in the likelihood that the child who repeatedly watches violent television will behave more violently when he or she grows up.

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