Media desensitization is a reduction in emotional, physiological, cognitive, and/or behavioral reactivity resulting from extensive media exposure. Communication researchers have primarily used the term “desensitization” to label the effects of repeated media violence exposure on violence tolerance, meaning both a decrease in empathy and concern and also an increase in callousness toward victims of violence.
The rise in popularity of media desensitization research starting in the 1960s roughly coincided with the development and popularization of exposure treatments for phobias of various kinds. In systematic desensitization therapy, patients are exposed to anxiety-provoking stimuli (real, imagined, or mediated) at gradually increasing levels of intensity. Flooding therapy rejects graduated hierarchies in favor of immediate introduction to intense anxiety-evoking stimuli. Research has established the effectiveness of both approaches in dulling adverse emotions; regardless of the precise sequence, exposure to a previously aversive object reduces fear and anxiety. The predominant theoretical reasoning behind exposure treatments is that pairing aversive stimuli with relaxation reinforces positive associations with the stimulus, leading to an extinction of the phobia. The same mechanism appears to operate in the context of media exposure to aversive stimuli.
The earliest frequently cited media desensitization studies are those by Lazarus and colleagues (e.g., Lazarus et al. 1962), who determined that physiological and self-reported stress waned upon repeated (albeit short-term) exposure to scenes of Australian aboriginal sub-incisions. Several widely reported incidents of bystander apathy among Americans, including the murder of Kitty Genovese and the My Lai massacre, fueled research into media desensitization in the 1970s. Researchers discovered that violence exposure led to decreased physiological reactivity during subsequent nonfictional televised depictions of riots and car accidents. Children are also susceptible to desensitization; various researchers (e.g., Cline et al. 1973; Drabman & Thomas 1975; Thomas et al. 1977) found that compared with children who watched little to no media violence, children exposed to high levels of media violence demonstrated low levels of physiological reactivity and high levels of behavioral tolerance of other children’s aggressive acts.
With the advent of video tapes and cable television in North America in the 1980s, and the concomitant increase in anonymous access to pornography, legislators and feminist writers focused scholars’ attention on the effects of violent, sexual, and degrading depictions of women. A field experiment by Malamuth & Check (1981) established that exposure to a film portraying violence against women as positive and justified increased men’s attitudinal acceptance of violence against women. Linz and colleagues (e.g., Linz et al. 1988) conducted multiple studies demonstrating that a decrease occurred in self-reported depression as well as in physiological and self-reported anxiety between the first and last day of exposure to violent sexual films, and ratings of the films’ violence and degradingness also decreased. In addition, indifference toward victims of violence generalized to a mock sexual assault trial, in which male participants who belonged to a high violent-sex exposure condition demonstrated less sympathy toward the rape victim in the trial and toward rape victims in general, compared with men in a no-exposure condition. Later studies suggested that women demonstrate some, but not all, of the same responses to violent sexual films, and that audiences’ callousness toward violence victims dissipates in the days following exposure, provided that they avoid further exposure to violent sexual media content.
Current concern about the increasing realism of video-game violence has recently led researchers to study the desensitizing effects of video games. These effects are indeed evident; for instance, the men who played a high-violence video game in a study by Deselms & Altman (2003) assigned more lenient prison sentences to violent criminals than did men who played a low-violence game, even an hour after exposure, and among children in another study (Funk et al. 2003), self-reported long-term exposure to violent video games was negatively associated with empathetic responses to vignettes.
Desensitization may be rooted in changes in the brain; recent research using eventrelated brain potential data (Bartholow et al. 2006) suggests that the aversive motivation system is less activated in habitual violent video-game players than in others, and that this decreased activation predicts greater behavioral tolerance for aggression. Further evidence, gathered by Funk and colleagues, suggests that the relationship between heavy exposure to violent video games and low levels of empathy may be stronger than are the relationships between empathy and violence on television, on the Internet, in film, and in real life.
Some areas of media desensitization research have yet to be explored in depth, including the apparent gender differences in desensitization; the interactions among cognitive, emotional, physiological, and behavioral domains of desensitization; and the precise mechanisms that govern media desensitization. Nevertheless, mounting evidence demonstrates that extensive exposure to media violence decreases depression, anxiety, empathy, physiological reactivity, and attitudinal and behavioral opposition to acts of violence by others, especially among males.
- Bartholow, B. D., Bushman, B. J., & Sestir, M. A. (2006). Chronic violent video game exposure and desensitization to violence: Behavioral and event-related brain potential data. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 532 – 539.
- Cline, V. B., Croft, R. G., & Courrier, S. (1973). Desensitization of children to television violence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 360 – 365.
- Deselms, J. L., & Altman, J. D. (2003). Immediate and prolonged effects of videogame violence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33, 1553 –1563.
- Drabman, R. S., & Thomas, M. H. (1975). Does TV violence breed indifference? Journal of Communication, 25, 86 – 89.
- Funk, J. B., Buchman, D. D., Jenks, J., & Bechtoldt, H. (2003). Playing violent video games, desensitization, and moral evaluation in children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 413 – 436.
- Lazarus, R. S., Speisman, J. C., Mordkoff, A. M., & Davison, L. A. (1962). A laboratory study of psychological stress produced by a motion-picture film. Psychological Monographs, 76(34), 1– 35.
- Linz, D. G., Donnerstein, E., & Penrod, S. (1988). Effects of long-term exposure to violent and sexually degrading depictions of women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 758 –768.
- Malamuth, N. M., & Check, J. V. P. (1981). The effects of mass-media exposure on acceptance of violence against women: A field experiment. Journal of Research in Personality, 15, 436 – 446.
- Thomas, M. H., Horton, R. W., Lippincott, E. C., & Drabman, R. S. (1977). Desensitization to portrayals of real-life aggression as a function of exposure to television violence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 450 – 458.