young person in a hoodie signifying desensitisation

Desensitisation and the Media


The graphic representation of violence in the media can evoke a strong sense of shock and fear in the audience, especially if the depiction of aggressive behaviour is realistic and intense. Experiencing these disturbing scenes might also challenge our moral values and beliefs.

However, some critics believe we become less responsive and empathetic to the suffering of others in real life when consume violent content on television, computer games and other media forms. This process is called desensitisation.

Desensitisation also refers to the potential link between the heavy exposure to violence in the media and our aggressive thoughts, feelings, and actions. There are particular concerns regarding children and vulnerable people who might be more susceptible to the negative effects of violence portrayed on the screen. Many campaigners continue to argue for greater regulation of media products to protect audiences from harmful content and call for industry guidelines or restrictions to ensure responsible content creation and marketing practices.

This introduction to desensitation will look at four important studies which help inform the debate around media violence and its impact on the audience.

Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models

Albert Bandura was a professor of psychology who was interested in how we learn patterns of behaviour by observing and imitating other people. His 1963 experiment explored “the extent to which film-mediated aggressive models may serve as an important source of imitative behavior”. In other words, do children copy violent behaviour they see on television.

His team divided 48 boys and 48 girls, who were enrolled in the Stanford University Nursery School, into three experimental groups and one control group. One group of subjects observed an adult punching a large Bobo doll on the nose, pommelling the toy with a mallet, and then kicking it around the room. The role model was also verbally aggressive, saying things such as “sock him in the nose”, “throw him in the air” and “kick him”.

A second group watched the same adults acting out the aggressive behaviour on film while the third group watched a cartoon character called Herman the Cat perform the same sequence of violent acts on the Bobo doll. The final group were not exposed to any aggressive behaviour.

Each child was later brought into an experimental room which contained aggressive toys, such as a 3-foot Bobo doll, a mallet and dart guns. There were also nonaggressive toys: a tea set, crayons, and plastic farm animals. The researchers observed the children playing through a one-way mirror for twenty minutes and measured the number of aggressive responses.

photographs from the Bobo doll experiment
Photographs from the Bobo doll experiments

Bandura predicted the young subjects would be less likely to imitate behaviour the more remote the model was from reality. However, the data suggested “exposure to humans on film portraying aggression was the most influential in eliciting and shaping aggressive behaviour”. The group of boys and girls who watched the film version of adult were actually more likely to strike the Bobo doll and other objects with the mallet and echo the role models’ verbal aggression. Interestingly, the children who watched the film developed more imaginative and elaborate gun play – stalking an opponent, quick drawing, and rapid firing in the style of a Western gunslinger.

You can see from the original data, even the children who watched the aggressive cartoon model on film also “exhibited nearly twice as much aggression” compared to the control group:

GroupReal-lifeHuman filmCartoon filmControl group
Mean total aggression scores83929954

This led Bandura to speculate mass media served “as an important source of social behaviour”. He referred to an article published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1961 to illustrate this symbolic modelling. The story described how a boy was seriously injured when he re-enacted the knife fight from “Rebel Without a Cause” with his friends. They had watched the James Dean film the night before on television and imitated the violence scene in real life.

Screenshot from Rebel Without a Cause
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Since his results provided “strong evidence that exposure to filmed aggression heightens aggressive reactions in children”, Bandura was invited to testify before several congressional committees in the late 1960s. His social learning theory and evidence to the Federal Trade Commission resulted in new advertising standards in America which banned the portrayals of children performing risky activities, including one memorable advertisement that showed characters hitting each other with a mallet to promote Anacin headache medication: “Tension. Pressure. Hammer it out with Anacin”.

The Desensitisation of Children

Victor B. Cline (1972) wanted to measure the physiological effects on children who were constantly exposed to aggressive behaviour on television to see if heavy users did become desensitised to violence. In the first phase of the study, the psychologist and his team recruited eighty boys through advertisements in daily newspapers and divided them into two groups.

  1. Low TV exposure group: having witnessed TV four or less hours per week for the preceding two years.
  2. High TV exposure group: having witnessed TV 25 hours a week or more for the previous two years.

These viewing times were verified by interviews with parents and children.

During their individual experimental session, each boy watched a two-minute non-violent film about skiing, a four-minute chase sequence from a comedy film and then an eight-minute sequence depicting a brutal boxing match from the film “The Champion”. The researchers recorded the changes in the subjects’ blood volume pulse amplitude – a popular method for monitoring heart rates and blood flow.

In the second phase of the study, another set of forty-one boys were divided into low TV and high TV exposure groups. The same sequence was played but the participants watched it in pairs – one boy from each group. Their blood volume pulse amplitude and skin conductance responses were monitored for changes.

The results from both studies were “essentially identical” – boys with high TV exposure were significantly less aroused when exposed to film violence. They were desensitised. The study was one of the first to show “some children who are heavy TV watchers may become to some degree habituated or desensitized to violence generally” and raised concerns about the role of television violence in the emotional and behavioural life of children.

Desensitisation and Video Games

Nicholas Carnagey (2007) defined desensitisation to violence as “a reduction in emotion-related physiological reactivity to real violence” and hypothesised exposure to violent media can cause physiological desensitisation to real-life violence, especially aggressive behaviours in video games.

257 college students participated in his study. While the subjects reported the number of hours per week they spent playing video games and their preference for violent or nonviolent content, the researchers measured their heart rates (HR) and galvanic skin responses (GSR) to establish a baseline.

The participants were randomly assigned a video game to play for twenty minutes. The selection included the infamously violent “Mortal Kombat” and the less aggressive 3D Pinball. Their HR and GSR measurements were taken again after the session.

Finally, the participants watched a ten-minute videotape of courtroom outbursts, police confrontations, shootings and prison fights, including footage of two prisoners repeatedly stabbing another inmate. These were actual violent episodes and were expected to evoke a strong emotional response in the students.

The researchers summarised the measurements taken at the start of the session, post-gameplay, and then during the film into the following tables:

Bar charts showing physiological desensitisation
Original data from the study

If you look at the first chart, the increases in HR after game play were essentially the same for the violent and nonviolent game conditions. However, the average heart rates of participants who played the non-violent video game rose to 70 beats per minute during the showing of the real-life violence compared to a drop in heart rates in the participants who played more violent games. This contrast in rates suggested violent game players were less aroused than the nonviolent game players.

This difference was reinforced by the GSR data which also demonstrated violent game players were less aroused by the real-life violence than the nonviolent game players. Put simply, participants who had just played a violent video game were physiologically desensitised to filmed violence of people being beaten, stabbed, and shot. The researchers concluded “violent video game exposure can cause desensitisation to real-life violence”.

124 men and 133 women took part in the study. The data did not reveal any significant difference in terms of gender.

Carnagey and his team speculated video game violence would have more pronounced effects on users than violent television programmes and films because players are more actively involved in the narratives and more likely to identify with the protagonists. Incredible advances in graphics and textures might also increase the physiological desensitisation to violence.

Definitions of Desensitisation

Finally, Carnagey offered a useful list of working definitions of desensitisation:

  1. an increase in aggressive behaviour;
  2. a reduction in physiological arousal to real-life violence;
  3. a fattening of affective reactions to violence;
  4. a reduction in likelihood of helping a violence victim;
  5. a reduction in sympathy for a violence victim;
  6. a reduction in the sentence for a convicted violent offender,
  7. a reduction in the perceived guilt of a violence perpetrator; and
  8. a reduction in judged severity of a violence victim’s injuries.

This “hodge-podge of definitions” has developed over the years because researchers, journalists, politicians, and the general public have all use the term desensitisation to mean different things depending on the context.

Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviour

Working with various colleagues, Craig Anderson developed a theoretical approach to explain how aggression is influenced by both our thought processes and our emotional reactions to external factors. It was called the General Affective Aggression Model (GAAM).

Following two studies, Anderson and Dill (2000) determined “real-life violent video game play was positively related to aggressive behaviour and delinquency” and that exposure to a “graphically violent video game” under laboratory conditions also “increased aggressive thoughts and behaviour”. They also adapted the model to describe the impact of repeated violent game play on the audience:

desensitisation process

In summary, each time someone plays a violent video game, they are taught the world is full of hostile enemies and violent solutions are appropriate and effective in overcoming this danger. The desensitisation effects change the player’s personality, so they develop more aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviour which can even lead to new social situations where deviant behaviour is more likely to occur.

Alternative Viewpoints

In “Poetics”, the Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested watching the downfall of a tragic hero on stage would be cathartic. By experiencing the tragedy alongside the protagonist, we would purge our own pity and fear.

Some research in the 1950s and 1960s also suggested watching aggressive behaviour on film had a positive impact on the audience because it enabled them to vent their frustrations. Bandura (1963) believed the recent evidence for this sort of catharsis was “equivocal”.

Some people continue to argue video games act as a release and help players learn to cope with stressful situations and enhance the problem-solving skills. Perhaps it depends on the genre and the representation of violence.


The term desensitisation refers to the process and effects of violent content in the media on the audience. Many studies suggest there is a link between desensitisation and the depiction of violence in television programmes, films, video games, and other media forms. Another good example is George Gerbner’s research which argued heavy exposure to media violence creates an exaggerated view of violence in the world. You can find out more about his mean world syndrome in our guide to the cultivation theory.

However, it is important to recognise other factors, such as personal characteristics, family environment, and cultural influences, may also play a significant role in shaping our responses to violent content because we decode messages according to our own frameworks of knowledge.

Anderson, C.A. & Dill, K.E. (2000): “Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 78, Issue 4.
Bandura, A., Ross, D. & Ross, S. A. (1961). “Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology Vol.63.
Bandura, A., Ross, D. & Ross, S.A. (1963) “Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology Vol.66.
Carnagey N.L., Anderson C.A. & Bushman B.J. (2007): The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Vol 43 Issue 3.
Cline, V. B., Croft, R. G., & Courier, S. (1973). “Desensitization of children to television violence”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol 27.

Further Reading

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