Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Television Violence Enticing, But Not Satisfying

• March 13, 2012 • 4:00 AM

New research finds people enjoy less-gory versions of television shows, even when they are enticed to watch by a graphically violent description.

Why is there so much graphic violence in contemporary entertainment? Producers will tell you the answer is simple: because people enjoy it.

According to newly published research, the real reason may be: Because it’s easy to market.

When it comes to graphic gore, there’s a gap between what whets our appetite and what we actually find satisfying. That’s the conclusion of a study by Indiana University scholars Andrew Weaver and Matthew Kobach, which found students were enticed by descriptions of violent scenes, but actually enjoyed the programs more when those elements were edited out.

“Violent content seldom increases enjoyment,” the researchers write in the journal Aggressive Behavior. “This experiment demonstrates that this is the case even when viewers are seeking out violent content.”

For their study, which featured 191 IU undergraduates ranging in age from 18 to 27, Weaver and Kobach chose episodes from four popular television dramas known for their violent scenes: Oz, Kingpin, The Sopranos and 24.

They wrote two different descriptions of each episode: One described the violent scenes in detail, using terms such as “stabbing” and “killing,” while the other used euphemisms such as “tragic results” or “they look to settle the score.”

Similarly, they utilized two different versions of each episode: the original and a cleaned-up cut in which the violent scenes were excised. These gore-free versions were nearly five minutes shorter than the originals.

Each participant was given four descriptions to read – two violent, two nonviolent – and asked to choose which program they wished to watch. After making their decision, they were randomly assigned to watch either the original, violent episode of the show or its edited, nonviolent version.

“Participants were more likely to choose to watch programs with violent descriptions than they were programs with nonviolent descriptions,” the researchers report. “Enjoyment of actual viewing, on the other hand, was lower for viewing violent programs.

“Importantly, even when participants in this experiment chose programs with violent descriptions over programs with nonviolent descriptions, enjoyment was higher for viewing nonviolent episodes than for viewing violent episodes.”

So if we enjoy nonviolent programs more, why do we keep tuning into violent ones? Weaver and Kobach offer several possible explanations. One is that viewers may use violence “as a predictor of other enjoyable types of content.” They assume that a violent film or television show will also have the sort of action or intense dramatic conflict they enjoy.

Another possibility, which is drawn from evolutionary psychology, is that our brains are wired to pay close attention to images of murder and mayhem, “given the severe costs and potential payoffs associated with violence.” Like our ancient ancestors who had to be attentive to possible predators, the prospect of violence heightens our attention. We instinctively want to know more, which in this case means buying a DVD or pay-cable package.

All this is bound to produce mixed reactions. Much evidence links violent entertainment with higher levels of aggressive behavior – and we are watching this stuff, whether or not we’re getting much enjoyment from it. In the researchers’ words, that makes this dynamic a “public health threat.”

But on another level, it’s a relief to realize we’re not bloodthirsty creatures who get great pleasure out of watching violence. It seems our satisfaction with The Sopranos comes not from the stabbings, but from the storytelling.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


September 25 • 9:05 AM

Sponsors: Coming to a Sports Jersey Near You

And really, it’s not that big of a deal.


September 25 • 8:00 AM

The Most Pointless Ferry in Maryland

Most of the some 200 ferries that operate in the United States serve a specific, essential purpose—but not the one that runs across the Tred Avon River.


September 25 • 7:00 AM

Hating Happiness

People all over the world are afraid of happiness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s yet another challenge to the notion that positive thinking can heal all wounds.


September 25 • 6:00 AM

Why I’m No Longer Willing to Give My Money to the NRA

I grew up with guns—as a kid and during my 20-year military career—and support individual ownership rights, but the National Rifle Association’s platform has shifted radically in recent years.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.