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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring/Summer 2013
Video Game Effects
Toward Aggression
With Dr. Christopher Ferguson

Bradley Cannon, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Do violent video games have a harmful impact on our youth?
 Dr. Chris Ferguson thinks not. Although advertising and fictional media effects may differ, Dr. Ferguson has written numerous articles that largely indicate video game effects on aggression are almost nonexistent. He also combines his belief about video games with the sociology of media research to explain how political and social pressures distort the scientific process to create such strong video game accusations in the first place. In the aftermath of the Aurora, Oakland, and Newtown shootings,
 Dr. Ferguson explains his defense of
video games.

How did you become interested
in the study of psychology?

I think I was always interested. I took a high school psychology class, and the teacher was really good. Psychology just seemed more fascinating to think about than physics, math, or English. Also, sometimes you hear that people get involved in psychology because they have a problem about themselves that they want to understand, but that’s never been the case with me—not to say that I don’t have problems, I guess, depending on who you ask. However, I got into psychology out of curiosity to study the more extreme behaviors like serial and mass murder, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Why do journals tend to ignore
certain material, such as defensive videogame articles?

Historically, we know that when new media comes out that older adults, who tend to include psychologists, criticize it very readily. When exaggerated claims of harm are made about a media, we call this a moral panic.

Also, I believe that most of us in our field, myself included, are liberals. We lean to the left, and a lot of psychological research tends to support a liberal agenda. Thus, either liberals are 100 percent right about everything—and I suppose I’d like to think that—or there’s some sort of bias that’s creeping into our field given the nonplurality of political backgrounds that we see in psychologists. This comes to the issue of citation bias, where studies may get inconsistent results, but scholars only pay attention to the results that support their hypothesis and ignore the ones that don’t.

We also have a problem with methodological flexibility, meaning that our methods in psychological science are fluid enough that researchers can run their results, rerun their results, or re-rerun their results four or five times until they get the outcomes they expected all along. However, this isn’t saying that they purposely fudge their results, but that a combination of human nature and a pre-existing belief of what they should get can corrupt the scientific process. Ultimately, we have an inconsistent field at best. Often its methodology has been repackaged as if it were consistent and able to be generalized very readily to societal violence when it shouldn’t have been.

Catharsis theory suggests that playing violent video games actually relieves stress, thus alleviating anger. Do you support this?
I think it is somewhat debatable to say whether the catharsis hypothesis is true or false. There is data that supports it, but there is also data that doesn’t. Basically, in the 50s and 60s scholars were interested in catharsis and actually found some evidence for it. Seymour Feshbach is one of the scholars known for doing that, but the paradigm changed in the 60s to a large degree due to Dr. Albert Bandura and social leaning. The paradigm shifted to social modeling and social cognitive theories of aggression, which catharsis theory is inconveniently the exact opposite of, so all of the scholars who were highly invested in social cognitive theories of aggression conducted studies where they basically reported to rule out catharsis as any kind of an effective approach. These were scholars invested in a particular theory shooting down an alternate theory. Not that they were in bad faith, but their investment in one side of that debate was always very clear.

By no means am I endorsing catharsis theory, but I have seen other articles come out, even recently, to support it. I was the action editor of one article that is now in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, which basically demonstrated that catharsis can work on some level. Because of that, I would say that the statement "catharsis is definitely false” is probably an ideological statement and not any more definite than when the communists claimed that Capitalism is the evil of the world. That being said, in my own research, I don’t see much effect for exposure toward violent video games one way or another in terms
of affecting aggressive behavior. Most of
my research with media violence has been essentially null. There has been zero effect. No positive. No negative. And now we’ve done some studies where we’ve stressed participants with horrible tasks to make them upset, and then we gave them video games to play. What we’ve found in general is that all video games, violent or not, tend to relax people, and that regular violent video game players handle stress better than those who don’t ordinarily play. Thus, whether violent video games affect aggression to support social cognitive learning or not, we do tend to see some sort of relaxation effect.

As new media platforms appear in the future, do you think that video game criticism will shift to something else?

In the 1950s, psychiatrists testified before Congress that comic books caused delinquency and homosexuality because Batman and Robin were secretly gay. We can look back and laugh at that, but they took it seriously at the time. Much more recently, psychologists claimed that the effects of media violence are as bad as smoking towards lung cancer. This too, is something people should have been able to debunk, and yet we still sometimes hear it talked about.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to learn very well because we simply move on to the next panic. To some degree, social media may be the next in line. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) made a claim about two years ago that the more a person uses Facebook the more depressed he or she becomes, which they coined as "Facebook Depression”. I think that this case is quite illustrative, because scholar Larry Magid investigated the AAP claims and found
that they didn’t cite any real link between social media and depression, which again represents the citation bias issue. On top
of this, when Magid contacted sources that were cited, the authors basically disavowed the claim of a Facebook Depression because even their studies couldn’t support it.

The Sandy Hook shooting has obviously shaken everything in terms of a moral panic. However, it takes a while for a new media to become accepted by the majority of the population, at which point people usually figure out it didn’t cause the massive upheaval that they worried about. In a couple generations, I think people will have forgotten about video games too.

A tiny percentage of people who already have pre-existing dispositions, such as high neuroticism, seem to be the most vulnerable to violence? Just how small is this group?
I don’t know if I could put a clear percentage on it, because it depends upon how you define high neuroticism. The good news is that there isn’t a huge wave of individuals on the cusps of engaging in serious acts of violence. That having been said, there certainly are at-risk individuals, and in the absence of an effective mental health system, I think we always run the risk of someone doing something extreme.

Unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about how these individuals react to the media, so I think the hypothesis gets thrown around quite a bit. We still ask the question whether video games are a small but essential part of these violent events, but there really hasn’t been much research. We have published initial data looking at kids with pre-existing antisocial traits, but in that case we could not find a link between those kids and violent video playing. It’s still a new area of research, and I think it’s going to take a little longer before we have a clear answer.

Do children perceive video games differently when they are 5 than when they are 13?

We do have one study that is again in progress where we look at advertising. With this, we find that mainly younger kids—3- to 5-year-olds—are most easily convinced to eat junk food, whereas older kids are much less persuadable.

However, there doesn’t seem to be much research on video games effects in different age groups. Obviously, younger people
tend to perceive video games to not be a
big deal, but we haven’t found any evidence that younger children are more vulnerable to media effects. In fact, in some of the older meta-analyses, such as John Sherry’s, we actually find an inverse relationship, although the effects are very small. In these analyses, college students show more effects than kids do, but that’s probably because college students can figure out what they are supposed to do and go along with the program, whereas kids give their honest responses, which basically show no effects whatsoever. Thus we have really not been able to document the idea that younger kids are particularly vulnerable, at least in terms of fictional media and aggression.

In Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), what is your opinion of the Supreme Court’s ruling against video game restrictions?
I think the Supreme Court got the research exactly right, and that their critiques of the psychology field were on target. I think they almost ridiculed the field for being very poor quality. And perhaps, with a little less of a tone, recent reviews by the Australian and Swedish governments have basically agreed that this field has inconsistent results and is limited by very significant flaws. I think the Brown vs. EMA case shows that, as a field, we really run the risk of damaging our credibility. The more extreme we make our statements, the more ridiculous we will look. For example, a professor may say to his/her class: "There is clear evidence that video games are harmful,” but when anyone can Google this and see disagreeing research, what does that do to the professor’s credibility?

I think this is where the American Psychological Association—and to some extent the psychological community as
a whole—has had many problems. Right now, we need to improve our standards and change our culture, because we have allowed scholars to have political agendas and to say many extreme things in order to grab headlines. We need to insist on a much more conservative language, especially in social science where we know that there are some limits to what we can do.

In fact, I would encourage students to spend time fact-checking things their professors says, things that they read in academic journals, and even things that I am saying right now. Don’t take my word for it. Fact-check it, because there is a lot of ideology in our field. Our methods are not physics.

What can we expect to see
 from you in the future?

Like many psychologists, I follow what society is interested in, so I think I’ll be looking for kids with mental health symptoms to watch for interaction effects with video game violence. There is also an argument that video games are more interactive than other media, so we’ve just started work on kids’ exposure to regularly challenged books, such as Huckleberry Fin, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter. In these studies, we’ll look to see if kids’ exposures to these banned books have any similar or different impacts on them than television and video games.


Dr. Chris Ferguson currently serves as department chair of Psychology and Communication at Texas A&M International University. He holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Central Florida, is licensed as a psychologist in Texas, and has published dozens of papers related to media and video game violence effects, as well as other media effects such as thin-ideal media and advertising effects.

Dr. Ferguson was invited to speak to Vice President Biden’s Gun Violence Task Force in early 2013 and has appeared on numerous media outlets ranging from NBC’s Nightline and CBS’s Face the Nation to the BBC, Washington Post, and USA Today. He writes occasional columns on psychology for Time.com and has published a novel, Suicide Kings. He lives in Laredo, Texas with his wife and young son.

Copyright 1996 (Volume 1, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

 

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