Is there a possible causal relationship between an increasing occurrence of violent political rhetoric in broadly available media channels and the occurrence of violent political behavior? How would a social scientist investigate this hypothetical relationship? (Here is a pretty worrisome timeline of events, statements, and actions over the past several years involving violent rhetoric against the government and violent actions.)
Much of the debate since the Tucson shootings has focused on what seems like the wrong question: was there a direct influence from the extremist rhetoric of the past two years to the violent actions of this particular assailant? Sometimes the answer to this kind of question is “yes” — Timothy McVeigh was directly inspired by the violent ideas and passions associated with the right-wing militia movement. But the harder question is that of indirect and diffused influence: is it possible for a pattern of virulent media communications to create a culture of violent attitudes that leads through indirect mechanisms to political violence directed against individuals and institutions?
In order to think carefully about this set of issues, we need to think through the ways in which individuals are led to commit violent actions. We might model the potentially violent person along these lines: Anger and hatred are emotional states that motivate violent attacks. Social inhibitions and processes of self-control work in most people to inhibit acting on hateful, violent impulses. Some social and physiological influences have the effect of weakening inhibitions. Individuals are most likely to engage in violence when hateful emotions are strongest and inhibitions are weakest. They are most likely to direct violence against symbols or representatives of the object of their anger and hatred.
Media and public discourse can affect each of these three factors. Angry speech can increase feelings of anger in the listener. It can focus angry impulses towards a specific group. And it can lower inhibitions by positively valorizing Violent action. “Your peers will admire you for taking action; other people have done so too. You are justified.”
We might model the media ranters as involved in a game of escalation, competing against each other for greater shock value and virulent language. They have an interest in generating a committed audience, and they are competing with other voices for that audience. They have an interest in escalation. “Shock radio” is intended to shock.
It doesn’t appear that direct psychological research has yet been done on this question. But there is a related question that has been very extensively studied, and that is the effect of dramatized television violence on children’s propensity for aggression. It appears that there is fairly strong evidence in the social psychology and developmental psychology literatures for a causal link between exposure to television violence in children and increased aggression. Here is a paper in Developmental Psychology by L. Rowell Huesmann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard Eron (link), where the authors find a significant link between childhood exposure to TV violence and adult aggression.
Over the past 40 years, a body of literature has emerged that strongly supports the notion that media-violence viewing is one factor contributing to the development of aggression. The majority of empirical studies have focused on the effects of watching dramatic violence on TV and film. Numerous experimental studies, many static observational studies, and a few longitudinal studies all indicate that exposure to dramatic violence on TV and in the movies is related to violent behavior (Huesmann & Miller, 1994; Huesmann, Moise, & Podolski, 1997). Furthermore, a substantial body of psychological theory has developed explaining the processes through which exposure to violence in the mass media could cause both short- and long-term increases in a child’s aggressive and violent behavior (Bandura, 1977; Berkowitz, 1993; Eron, 1963; Huesmann, 1988, 1998; Zillmann, 1979). Long-term effects with children are now generally believed to be primarily due to long-term observational learning of cognitions (schemas, beliefs, and biases) supporting aggression (Berkowitz, 1993; Huesmann, 1988, 1998), whereas short-term effects with adults and children are recognized as also due to priming (Huesmann, 1998), excitation transfer (Zillmann, 1983), or imitation of specific behaviors. Most researchers of aggression agree that severe aggressive and violent behavior seldom occurs unless there is a convergence of multiple predisposing and precipitating factors such as neurophysiological abnormalities, poor child rearing, socioeconomic deprivation, poor peer relations, attitudes and beliefs supporting aggression, drug and alcohol abuse, frustration and provocation, and other factors. The evidence is already substantial that exposure to media violence is one such long-term predisposing and short-term precipitating factor. The current longitudinal study adds important additional empirical evidence that the effects of childhood exposure to media violence last into young adulthood and increase aggressive behavior at that time for both males and females. (201)
And here is a 2003 article from Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Anderson, Berkowitz, Donnerstein, Huesmann, Johnson, Linz, Malamuth and Wartella summarizing research leading to similar conclusions (link). Here is their abstract:
Summary—Research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts. The effects appear larger for milder than for more severe forms of aggression, but the effects on severe forms of violence are also substantial (r = .13 to .32) when compared with effects of other violence risk factors or medical effects deemed important by the medical community (e.g., effect of aspirin on heart attacks). The research base is large; diverse in methods, samples, and media genres; and consistent in overall findings. The evidence is clearest within the most extensively researched domain, television and film violence. The growing body of video-game research yields essentially the same conclusions.
Short-term exposure increases the likelihood of physically and verbally aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive emotions. Recent large-scale longitudinal studies provide converging evidence linking frequent exposure to violent media in childhood with aggression later in life, including physical assaults and spouse abuse. Because extremely violent criminal behaviors (e.g., forcible rape, aggravated assault, homicide) are rare, new longitudinal studies with larger samples are needed to estimate accurately how much habitual childhood exposure to media violence increases the risk for extreme violence.
Well-supported theory delineates why and when exposure to media violence increases aggression and violence. Media violence produces short-term increases by priming existing aggressive scripts and cognitions, increasing physiological arousal, and triggering an automatic tendency to imitate observed behaviors. Media violence produces long-term effects via several types of learning processes leading to the acquisition of lasting (and automatically accessible) aggressive scripts, interpretational schemas, and aggression-supporting beliefs about social behavior, and by reducing individuals’ normal negative emotional responses to violence (i.e., desensitization).
Certain characteristics of viewers (e.g., identification with aggressive characters), social environments (e.g., parental influences), and media content (e.g., attractiveness of the perpetrator) can influence the degree to which media violence affects aggression, but there are some inconsistencies in research results. This research also suggests some avenues for preventive intervention (e.g., parental supervision, interpretation, and control of children’s media use). However, extant research on moderators suggests that no one is wholly immune to the effects of media violence.
Recent surveys reveal an extensive presence of violence in modern media. Furthermore, many children and youth spend an inordinate amount of time consuming violent media. Although it is clear that reducing exposure to media violence will reduce aggression and violence, it is less clear what sorts of interventions will produce a reduction in exposure. The sparse research literature suggests that counter-attitudinal and parental-mediation interventions are likely to yield beneficial effects, but that media literacy interventions by themselves are unsuccessful.
Though the scientific debate over whether media violence increases aggression and violence is essentially over, several critical tasks remain. Additional laboratory and field studies are needed for a better understanding of underlying psychological processes, which eventually should lead to more effective interventions. Large-scale longitudinal studies would help specify the magnitude of media-violence effects on the most severe types of violence. Meeting the larger societal challenge of providing children and youth with a much healthier media diet may prove to be more difficult and costly, especially if the scientific, news, public policy, and entertainment communities fail to educate the general public about the real risks of media-violence exposure to children and youth. (81)
Significantly, both reviews single out mechanisms that appear relevant to hateful and violent language by widely disseminated media commentators. Here are some of the important psychological mechanisms cited in these two survey articles:
- long-term observational learning of cognitions (schemas, beliefs, and biases) supporting aggression
- imitation of specific behaviors
- priming existing aggressive scripts and cognitions
- increasing physiological arousal
- triggering an automatic tendency to imitate observed behaviors
- reducing individuals’ normal negative emotional responses to violence (i.e., desensitization)
These articles seem to go some ways towards framing an answer to the question posed above: can exposure to violent speech in the media create indirect causal influences leading to more violent behavior by individuals? The psychological literature appears to support the plausible prior belief that exposure to extreme and violent language in the political media can make individuals somewhat more disposed to aggressive behavior. And this effect doesn’t need to proceed through the direct “true believer” mechanism; virtually everyone who has a television or a computer is exposed to this kind of speech, and the literature suggests broad and diffused effects on behavior as a result.
Here are a few possible mechanisms that seem relevant today when we consider the possible causal connections from over-the-top political rhetoric to the occurrence of acts of political violence:
- Exposure to violent language directly motivates some individuals to become “true believer” violent actors.
- Exposure to violent language causes some unstable individuals to focus their aggression against a specific range of targets.
- Exposure to violent language gradually reduces inhibitions against violence, leading to more readiness to commit violent acts.
- Exposure to violent language influences groups and networks of individuals to be more favorable to the use of violence.
So these seem to be fairly strong empirical reasons for being very concerned about the inflammatory language that has become increasingly common in political discourse and media rants. The issue isn’t simply the value of political civility; it is the very real possibility that extremist rants can influence a small number of listeners to be more prone to engage in acts of political violence, and even people who aren’t listeners can be influenced by those who are.