“ I have to say I do like American football, but I don’t watch it. OK. That’s an example. I have a hard time not watching it because I do love the sport. But it’s a moral issue for me. If people are dying and becoming mentally ill from a sport, I think of it as my having participated in watching gladiators. And I cannot do it. It’s just a — it’s a personal choice. I don’t expect that it will translate to other people’s choices. But it’s a personal one.”
This is an excerpt of a phenomenal interview with Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of Social Ethics in the department of psychology at Harvard University.
I have to admit, even though I don’t have a thing for American Football, I could watch boxing. I can feel the excitement, and appreciate the skills, even gracefulness that some boxers bring to the ring.
Presented this way, violence can be rather exhilarating. Which is why horror films are incredibly successful for Hollywood.
WHY DO WE LIKE VIOLENCE?
We seem to be responding to a very instinctual part of our nature. Our brains feel like we are in the middle of the action, getting a rush of adrenaline, noradrenaline, testosterone and cortisol, while in the comfort of a cushy sofa.
This chemical cocktail can be quite addictive, and that might explain why more than half of the top 10 best selling games of 2015 were violent.
But the hormonal and psychological changes haven’t been really understood by science yet. No theory has been at the forefront, and we may be decades away from fully figuring out the lure of violence, but if you want to go deeper as to the why, here is an article that gives you 8 possible theories.
YOUR BRAIN ON VIOLENCE
We may not know why… but we are starting to understand that the violence we watch has a deep effect in our psyches.
For example, in one study by James B. Weaver III and Dolf Zillmann, participants were divided in two groups: one watched 4 films in which conflict was resolved by the protagonist using violence, sometimes gratuitously. The other group watched films such as “Driving Miss Daisy”, where conflict was resolved with non-violent means.
On the 4th day, students were asked to do a test, supposedly unrelated to the study: As they performed this test, they were treated neutrally or abusively by a research assistant. Right after that, they were put in a position where they could inflict harm on this assistant.
Every person who was treated abusively by the assistant was willing to “dish it out”. But amongst those who were unprovoked, guess which group was more likely to get “testy” with the research assistant?
You guessed it right: the group watching violent movies. The research was well designed, and the results were not only statistically relevant, the effects on the non-provoked group were surprising to the researchers.
A separate study from the Macquarie University found that children who watched violent movies were more likely to view the world as an “unsympathetic, malicious and scary place”.
A more recent study of journalists exposed to a constant barrage of violent images in the newsroom noticed how the effects went towards the extremes: some were numbed to the violence, others became hypersensitive to it.
Neither extreme bodes well for people who want to care for the world without being so affected by it, that it stops them in their tracks with a paralizing sensation.
CAN YOU BE A CONSCIOUS VIOLENCE WATCHER?
Yogis are interested in elevating their consciousness. The previous section suggests enough evidence is there for us to considerably restrict our violence-diet to a minimum.
I understand there are great works of art that include a great deal of aggression. Beyond entertainment, I am sure some of you can make a list of movies, paintings, books or songs which included violence but were able to change your life in a positive way. But in the balance… are we consuming too much violence?
It might be worth mentioning that none of the studies were specific to football or boxing. Researches are typically interested in the effects these sports have on the athletes, rather than the viewers.
And the research in that respect is overwhelmingly negative: most boxers and football players will suffer a great deal because of the sport they chose.
This brings me to the issue brought up by the quote at the beginning of this article, where Dr. Banaji recognized her reasons for not watching violence were linked to something important beyond the effects on her psyche: we vote with what we choose to watch.
Our media diet increases the type of content we consume, and encouraging people to bash their heads in for money might not be in the best interest of society at large.
It may raise important moral issues for those of us who want to encourage peace, health and wellbeing to the world.
What do you think?