Thursday, February 28, 2013

You can vent your anger if you really want to



The beauty of psychology research is that it can make you think differently about things.  A case in point comes from the ongoing research on the influence of violent video games on aggressive behavior.

I have written about this topic frequently in this blog over the years.

The research to date generally shows that playing violent video games increases aggression.  There are many ways to measure increases in aggression.  Some studies use techniques where they give people an opportunity to blast an opponent with noise.  Brad Bushman and his colleagues have shown that after people play violent video games, they are willing to blast people with louder noises than when they played a nonviolent game.

Other studies look at how easy it is to think aggressive thoughts.  Studies like this use a lexical decision task.  In lexical decision, you see a string of letters and have to decide whether it is a word.  If you saw the letters BRAIK, you would say “no” it isn’t a word, but if you saw the letter BRAKE, you would say “yes” it is a word.  Lots of research shows that when seeing letters that form a word, you are faster to respond when the concept described by that word is easy for you to think about.  That means that you would be faster to judge that the letters FIST form a word when you are thinking about being aggressive than when you are not. 

In general, studies using these lexical decision tasks show that you are faster to respond to words related to aggression after playing violent video games than after playing nonviolent video games. 

When I have written about these studies in the past, I have gotten comments from a number of gamers who insist that playing violent video games really does help them to vent their anger.  That places people’s experience in opposition to the data from studies.

A study by Markus Denzler, Michael Hafner and Jens Forster in the December 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin may help to explain what is going on.

They suggest that playing a violent video game may actually help to decrease aggression if you play the game with the goal to vent your anger.

In one study, participants were first asked to remember a situation in which they were angry with someone else.  If you try this yourself, you’ll realize that thinking about something that made you angry can actually start to make you angry again.  After thinking about something that made people angry, they were asked to do a lexical decision task involving some words that were related to aggression (like FIST) and others that were not related to aggression (like STOVE).  As you might expect, people were faster to respond to the words related to aggression than to the words not related to aggression.
Next, everyone was given the chance to play a 4-minute video game.  The game was a simple first-person shooter in which people had the chance to shoot at soldiers that appeared on the screen.  When a soldier was shot, a blood spot appeared on the screen.

Half the participants just played the game.  The other half were told to play the game in order to vent their anger.  After playing the game, everyone did the lexical decision task again.

Consistent with the previous research, people who played the game with no goal responded faster to words relating to aggression than to words not relating to aggression.  In fact, playing the game made it easier for them to think about aggression than when they first thought about being angry.

However, those people who played the game with the goal to vent their anger seem to have succeeded.  It was actually harder for them to respond to the words related to aggression than to the words not related to aggression.  

The authors did a similar study looking at how people typically deal with anger.  They used a scale that measures how often people try to vent their anger by doing something aggressive like slamming a door.  This study also asked people to think about someone who made them angry and had them play a violent video game.  People who typically try to vent their anger and played a game found it harder to respond to words relating to aggression than those who don’t typically vent their anger and played a game.

What does this mean?

This study suggests that if you have the goal to vent your anger, then playing a violent video game can actually help you to achieve that goal.  However, if you play a video game when angry without the goal to vent your anger, then playing the game helps you to think about being aggressive.

There is, of course, another set of studies that needs to be done here.  These studies just looked at how easily people could think about aggression.  It will be important to look at situations in which people can actually act aggressively (like the noise task) to see whether making it harder to think about aggression translates into less aggressive behavior in practice.

For now, though, this is a great example of research that can make you think differently about a topic.

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