In view of the preponderance of published research on the effects of the communication media, it is astounding, if not disconcerting, how little attention has been given to the systematic examination of the duration of these effects, and, as a result, how little is known about their duration. Such apparent neglect does not necessarily reflect lack of interest, however, but derives from principal and practical challenges associated with the assessment of the duration of media effects.
Among the principal difficulties are, first, the time discrepancy between cause and effect, and, second, extrinsic influences during the time course of the effect. The time discrepancy results from imprecision in the termination of causal stimulation and the onset of the frequently delayed effect measurement. Such imprecision has mostly plagued the assessment of quasi-immediate and potentially short-lived effects. Extrinsic influences, in contrast, have mainly complicated and often compromised the assessment of media effects of potentially long duration. The effect-duration measurement requires that extrinsic influences be assessed alongside the course of presumed media effects, such that the effects of these influences can be extracted. However, extrinsic influences are often accepted as unavoidable consequences of an ecologically valid environment in which media effects of any duration manifest themselves.
Another principal consideration is that the repeated assessment necessary to establish the duration of media effects may modify these very effects. Such likely distortion accrues to all obtrusively obtained assessments, as they create cognizance of the effects being measured.
The practical issues with the measurement of effect duration are primarily economic. Repeated taking of measures obviously requires a greater investment of resources, both labor and funds, than does a single effect measure. The likely attrition of respondents over repeated assessments is a further impediment.
The various indicated aspects of duration measurement are exemplified in the following research demonstrations.
Duration Of Short-Lived Effects (Seconds, Minutes)
Media research abounds with demonstrations of immediate and potentially short-lived effects of various kinds. A process known as priming is most frequently invoked to explain these effects (Jo & Berkowitz 1994). Briefly, an episode of media content is construed as a prime that activates particular neural networks and, as long as the activation persists, influences subsequent prime-related thoughts and actions. Following exposure to scenes of violence, for instance, the prime is expected to facilitate ensuing anger and aggression mainly because it activates related constructs. The research on such contingencies of prime and subsequent behavior has generally failed, however, to ascertain the time course of either prime activation or contingent behavior. As a result, the duration of immediate media effects has remained a matter of conjecture.
Although systematic assessments of the duration of priming effects are lacking, it is widely held that these effects are short-lived, perhaps spanning minutes. But it has also been suggested that the flow of media and alternative environmental stimuli defines a chain of primes, the effect of the last presented one superseding that of all prior ones. In this conceptualization, the effects created by particular primes may be limited to seconds. The resolution of this issue obviously awaits detailed duration measurements.
Theories of emotional reactivity gave more attention to effect duration. For instance, excitation transfer theory projects that excitation, however induced, decays slowly, and, as long as residues persist, intensifies subsequent affective experiences and behaviors. As the enduring excitatory residues are the mediators of the effects, duration measurements became crucial.
An early investigation explored the enhancement of music appreciation (Cantor & Zillmann 1973). After pre-arousal by exposure to films, respondents listened to musical selections. Transfer facilitation was observed up to 5 minutes. After that period, residues had decayed and facilitation was no longer in evidence.
Another excitation transfer study determined the duration of aggression facilitation after exposure to differently arousing films (Zillmann et al. 1974). Following a highly arousing erotic film, but not a less arousing violent film, transfer effects were observed for up to 11 minutes.
Other investigations examined the distractive effects of stark emotional reactions, such as elicited by exposure to news footage of a suicide. Three counterbalanced reports about issues of general interest, each 90 seconds long, followed a distressing report. Information acquisition was greatly impaired for the first and second of these reports, but not for the third. The effect of emotional distraction thus lasted for 3 minutes (Mundorf et al. 1990). A follow-up, methodologically parallel, study examined the impairment of information acquisition from commercials and offered the same conclusions about effect duration.
Recent technological developments in computer-assisted data collection have made more systematic assessments of effect duration possible. In selective exposure research, for instance, automated procedures have been devised to measure exposure in second or minute intervals.
In an exploration of the effects of moods on the choice of music, respondents were placed into good or bad moods and then allowed to listen to music (Knobloch & Zillmann 2002). Unbeknown to the listeners, their choices were automatically recorded at minute intervals over a period of 10 minutes. It was observed that persons in a bad mood, compared to those in a good mood, decided more quickly on their preferred music and then stayed with their choice of energetic, joyful music for the rest of the recorded period.
An investigation of the effects of headline framing on reading of the associated articles used the same fully automated procedure (Zillmann et al. 2004). The framed headings, displayed in the overview of an electronic newspaper, were factual or indicated human conflict, misfortune, agony, or economic circumstances. After initial sampling across frames for about 4 minutes, respondents’ choices became focused and stabilized. The reading of articles whose leads suggested conflict and agony dominated the reading of articles with other leads for the remaining 6 minutes.
Given the indicated new means of assessing the duration of effects automatically and without the creation of cognizance of research objectives, progress in effect-duration measurement seems finally at hand.
Intermediate Duration Of Effects (Hours, Days, Weeks)
Some research on the effects of media violence and pornography employed a design of repeated exposure and delayed effect assessment. Respondents were exposed to material in consecutive daily sessions throughout a week, and effects were ascertained days or weeks after exposure. Delays were used to ensure that measured effects were not short-lived ones immediately after the last exposure. Repeated exposure to media violence was found to exert effects 1 day after exposure, strengthening aggressiveness and increasing hostile behavior (Zillmann & Weaver 1999).
The measured effects of repeated exposure to pornography, at times one exposure session throughout a month, extended to 1 through 8 weeks (Zillmann 1989). After 1 week, various perceptual and dispositional consequences were in evidence. After 2 weeks, shifting erotic preferences were observed. A habituation decline of physical aspects of sexual arousal persisted up to 8 weeks (Howard et al. 1971).
Research on the perceptual and judgmental effects of single exposure to news reports has ascertained effects over periods from 1 to 3 weeks. Reports that differently framed the economic and environmental consequences of livestock farming, for instance, were found capable of altering perceptions of the issue immediately after exposure (Tewksbury et al. 2000). A repeated assessment after 3 weeks indicated a weak residual effect.
The perception of issues presented in the news was also examined in terms of exemplification theory (Zillmann & Brosius 2000). Respondents were exposed to reports, and their assessments of the issues were recorded either immediately or after a delay of 2 or 3 weeks. None of the assessments was ever repeated.
One investigation employed a factual report on small-farm economics that featured either a representative distribution of interviews with successful and failing farmers or involved only farmers in financial difficulties. The immediate measurement of issue perception showed that the one-sided exemplification produced a particularly bleak view of family farming. The 2-week delayed measurement yielded the same result, indicating that the created perceptions were stable over at least such a period. A parallel study explored the effects of pictorial exemplars. Instead of textual exemplars, photographs of successful or failing farmers were interspersed in the report. The effects were ascertained immediately versus 10 days later. The effects were again stable over time.
Using the same basic design, an investigation of risk perception concerning carjackings involved a factual report that highlighted different consequences for victims. Victims were presented either as having come to minor harm, as having suffered considerable bodily injury, or as having been killed. The immediate measurement showed that the respondents’ apprehensions about the crime of carjacking increased with the severity of injury suffered by the exemplars of the news report. The 1-week delayed measurement revealed that the apprehensions not only persisted but had actually increased.
Again using the same design, an investigation of health concerns indicated prolonged and potentially growing effects. Exposure to a program explicating the risks of skin cancer involved either threatening or rather innocuous images of the cancer’s visible manifestations. Immediately after exposure, the difference in imagery failed to produce appreciably different effects on risk perceptions, presumably because the effect of the imagery was overpowered by the immediacy of the textual message. In contrast, 2 weeks after exposure the threatening imagery showed a stronger, increased effect on the respondents’ assessment of the threat of this cancer to others and to themselves. Whereas much of the text’s influence had apparently been lost, the recalled imagery could at later times dominate the message’s influence. To safeguard against possible extrinsic influences during the delay period, issues were chosen that, during data collection, were not on the media agenda. Additionally, pre-tests ensured that respondents had little, if any, knowledge of the selected issues.
The duration of most of the described effects may be substantially longer than reported. In the absence of further delayed assessments, this remains conjecture, however.
Duration Of Long-Term Effects (Months, Years)
Research on health-promoting messages often ascertains effects in repeated assessments over extended periods.
An investigation into the effects of different appeals in a campaign aimed at improving sun-protective behavior, for instance, found that particularly direct und unmitigated language fostered more compliant behavior than alternative means of expression (Buller et al. 2000). This effect was not only observed immediately after message reception, but also 6 months later.
In another study, aimed at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, messages were tailored or not tailored to the respondents’ personal situation (Heimendinger et al. 2005). Interviews were conducted after 5 and 12 months. Compared to an untailored appeal, tailored messages, especially multiply applied ones, proved longitudinally more effective in improving dietary behavior.
Concerning long-term effects of exposure to media violence, a 1-year study was conducted with nursery-school children (Singer & Singer 1981). The children’s viewing habits and their aggressive behavior were recorded during several selected periods and compared in cross-lagged fashion. In some of these periods, earlier viewing was correlated with later aggression, but earlier aggression was also correlated with later viewing. The pattern thus suggested reciprocal influences.
The ultimate longitudinal investigation on these effects spanned 22 years (Huesmann & Eron 1986). Both the preference for violent media content and the aggressive behavior of 8-year-olds was assessed. A 10-year follow-up was applied to many of these children. Cross-lagged analysis revealed a significant correlation between boys’ earlier violence viewing and later aggression. The reverse correlation between earlier aggression and later violence viewing proved negligible, however. This finding was interpreted as suggesting that exposure to violence eventually causes violent behavior. The final follow-up explored effects after 22 years. A cross-lagged analysis again showed the indicated pattern. At the age of 30, aggressive men seemed to have succumbed to the influence of 22 years of watching violent television programs.
Later research, conducted in different countries and cultures, spanned 4 years and yielded further corroborating evidence (Huesmann & Eron 1986). A 3-year research project with school children and adolescents aged 7 through 16 failed, however, to lend unequivocal support to the causal interpretation of violence watching and aggressive behavior (Milavsky et al. 1982). Regression analysis revealed that, although numerous aspects of the examined relationship were positive, they were of negligible magnitude. A causal relation between the extended consumption of media violence and aggressive behavior could consequently not be considered substantiated, and the debate over the impact of media violence continues despite the considerable investment in longitudinal assessments (Cook et al. 1983).
- Buller, D. B., Burgoon, M., Hall, J. R., et al. (2000). Long-term effects of language intensity in preventive messages on planned family solar protection. Health Communication, 12(3), 261–275.
- Cantor, J. R., & Zillmann, D. (1973). The effect of affective state and emotional arousal on music Journal of General Psychology, 89, 97–108.
- Cook, T. D., Kendzierski, D. A., & Thomas, S. V. (1983). The implicit assumptions of television research: An analysis of the NIMH report on television and behavior. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47, 161–201.
- Heimendinger, J., O’Neill, C., Markus, A. C., et al. (2005). Multiple tailored messages are effective in increasing fruit and vegetable consumption among callers to the Cancer Information Service. Journal of Health Communication, 10, 65 – 82.
- Howard, J. L., Reifler, C. B., & Liptzin, M. B. (1971). Effects of exposure to pornography. In Technical report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, vol. 8. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, pp. 97–132.
- Huesmann, L. R., & Eron, L. D. (eds.) (1986). Television and the aggressive child: A cross-national comparison. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Jo, E., & Berkowitz, L. (1994). A priming effect analysis of media influences: An update. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 43 – 60.
- Knobloch, S., & Zillmann, D. (2002). Mood management via the digital jukebox. Journal of Communication, 52(2), 351–366.
- Milavsky, J. R., Stipp, H. H., Kessler, R. C., & Rubens, W. S. (1982). Television and aggression: A panel study. New York: Academic Press.
- Mundorf, N., Drew, D., Zillmann, D., & Weaver, J. (1990). Effects of disturbing news on recall of subsequently presented news. Communication Research, 17(5), 601– 615.
- Singer, J. L., & Singer, D. G. (1981). Television, imagination, and aggression: A study of preschoolers. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Tewksbury, D., Jones, J., Peske, M. W., Raymond, A., & Vig, W. (2000). The interaction of news and advocate frames: Manipulating audience perceptions of a local public policy issue. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 77(4), 804 – 829.
- Zillmann, D. (1989). Effects of prolonged consumption of pornography. In D. Zillmann & J. Bryant (eds.), Pornography: Research advances and policy considerations. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 127–157.
- Zillmann, D., & Brosius, H.-B. (2000). Exemplification in communication: The influence of case reports on the perception of issues. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Zillmann, D., & Weaver, J. B. (1999). Effects of prolonged exposure to gratuitous media violence on provoked and unprovoked hostile behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(1), 145 –165.
- Zillmann, D., Hoyt, J. L., & Day, K. D. (1974). Strength and duration of the effect of aggressive, violent, and erotic communications on subsequent aggressive behavior. Communication Research, 1, 286 –306.
- Zillmann, D., Chen, L., Knobloch, S., & Callison, C. (2004). Effects of lead framing on selective exposure to Internet news reports. Communication Research, 31(1), 58 – 81.