Thursday, September 13, 2012

Video games, violence, and dehumanization

One periodic theme in this blog has been the influence of video games on behavior.  To summarize what I have discussed in the past, video games can have both positive and negative influences.  On the positive side, playing prosocial video games promotes helping behavior.  In addition, extensive video game play seems to make people faster at making some kinds of complex decisions.  On the negative side, playing violent video games generally increases aggressive behavior in laboratory experiments.  In field studies, giving school children video games in the home leads to a decrease in their grades and the time they spend on homework.
Today’s blog entry is another entry in the negative column.
Violent video games often treats the victims of the violence abstractly.  In some games, the victims are aliens or nonhuman monsters.  In other games, the opponents are soldiers who are so heavily protected with body armor that they do not really look like people at all.  In still other games, the opponents are members of some group of outsiders like gang members.
Dehumanization is also a factor that supports violence in the outside world.  Nick Haslam and his colleagues have explore the ways that treating others as less than human tends leads to a negative attitude toward the dehumanized group and increases aggressive behavior toward the dehumanized group.
A paper in the May, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Tobias Greitemeyer and Neil McLatchie looked that the relationship between playing violent video games and the tendency to dehumanize others.
In one study, people played either a violent video game, a prosocial video game (in which the object was to help others) or a neutral video game (Tetris).  After playing, the game, participants rated the personality characteristics of a typical person from their country as well as a typical immigrant.  Previous work suggests that the personality traits of openness and conscientiousness are most typically thought of as uniquely human traits. The traits of emotional instability (neuroticism) and aggreableness are thought of as the ones most shared with other animals.  The expectation was that when you dehumanize someone, you will rate them as exhibiting the personality traits most typical of animals rather than those that are uniquely human. 
No matter what video game people played, they tended to view people from their own country as having a high degree of the personality characteristics typically associated with humans.  The difference among groups came primarily in ratings of immigrants.  Those who played a violent video game were much more likely to rate immigrants as having mostly characteristics also associated with animals compared to those who played prosocial or neutral video games.
Did this affect behavior?
In another study, participants had the chance to act aggressively toward another person.  Following a technique developed by Brad Bushman and Roy Baumeister, participants write an essay on a political issue. Then, they provided feedback on the essay written by another participant (who they were told was in another room on the same lab).  Afterward, they played either a violent video game or a neutral video game (in this case, pinball).  Next, they got the other participant’s comments on their essay.  Those comments were quite negative.  Participants then rated a number of personality characteristics about the other participant in the study.  Finally, participants had the chance to give a recommendation for the other participant who they were told was being considered for a competitive job.  Obviously, giving the other participant a negative evaluation would be a way to get back at them for the bad comments on their essay. 
What happened?
Participants who played the violent video game tended to rate the other participant as having fewer personality characteristics associated with humans than those who played the neutral game.  In addition, those who played the violent video game tended to give worse ratings to the other participant, suggesting that they were acting more aggressively toward them.
That is, playing a violent video game led people to think of others as less human and that made it more acceptable for them to act aggressively toward them.
Obviously, it is a long way from giving a negative evaluation of others to performing more violent actions toward them.  However, the weight of evidence about violent video games is troubling.  Playing violent video games generally increases people’s aggressive behavior toward others.
That said, it is not clear whether playing violent video games has a long-lasting effect on aggression.  In most studies, participants play a game and then have the chance to act aggressively soon afterward.  There is much less evidence suggesting that people playing violent video games act more aggressively in general.
In the end, though, it is worth recognizing that playing violent video games can increase the tendency toward aggression in the short-run.  If you are going to play violent video games, then in the period after you finish playing you should probably avoid other situations in which aggression might be a problem.