How media can encourage our better side

July 21, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Violent media -- films, TV, videogames -- can encourage aggression, and lots of research says so. But psychologists haven't spent as much time looking at the ways media with more socially positive content help suppress meanness and prod us toward cooperation, empathy, and helpfulness. When and why might a game or a movie mobilize our better angels and squelch our devils?

A review of the literature, including his own work, by psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer at the University of Innsbruck in Austria sorts out those questions and proposes a model to explain the underlying their answers. The article will be published in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for .

Greitemeyer’s own studies—many of them conducted with Silvia Osswald of Ludwig Maximilians University, in Germany—have affirmed that prosocial media content abets friendlier, more forgiving attitudes and behavior. In one experiment, for instance, some participants played a videogame called “Lemmings,” in which players guide little creatures through dangers to safety, while others played the morally and emotionally neutral game Tetris. Afterwards, the first group’s members were more likely to intervene in a simulated scene in which a man bullied and hurt his “ex-girlfriend.” The prosocial game group also more quickly identified socially positive words over neutral words (i.e., help versus run) amid nonsense words on a screen. Those who played a neutral game showed no difference in the time it took to select the words. This, says Greitemeyer, is evidence that the experience of playing the nicer game makes benevolent thoughts more accessible in the mind.

Prosocial game playing also suppresses aggressive thoughts and feelings. In another study, participants also played either a helpful, cooperative game or a neutral one. Asked to complete stories—in one, a friend arrives late to a movie date and doesn’t apologize—the former were less likely to evince angry, mean, or vengeful emotions. A story of Paris Hilton’s jailing after racing her car through Hollywood’s streets elicited more and less schadenfreude, or pleasure at another’s misfortune, from those who’d played the friendlier game. Songs with loving or peaceful lyrics also have been shown to instigate charitable giving and more generous tipping.

To explain these phenomena, Greitemeyer calls on the General Learning Model, which posits that personal traits, such as sex or education, either act independently or interact with situational conditions to affect thoughts, feelings, and arousal. Introduce media of varying contents, and either negative or positive cognition and emotion can be encouraged or discouraged, leading to different behaviors.

Noting the high prevalence of violence in all media, including those for children, as well as the voluminous research on it, Greitemeyer writes: “It is my hope that researchers will also address to what extent acts of benevolence in everyday life are precipitated by exposure to prosocial media.” Evidence of such salutary effects can only give science’s imprimatur to a kinder, gentler world.

Explore further: What's the psychological effect of violent video games on children?

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Study shows there's a positive side to worrying

April 27, 2017

Worry - it does a body good. And, the mind as well. A new paper by Kate Sweeny, psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, argues there's an upside to worrying.

Study links cannabis use in adolescence to schizophrenia

April 26, 2017

Scientists believe that schizophrenia, a disorder caused by an imbalance in the brain's chemical reactions, is triggered by a genetic interaction with environmental factors. A new Tel Aviv University study published in Human ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Jul 21, 2011
i see the joseph mengele social engineering in totalitarian thinking is alive and well..

may i ask who is going to force a free market to make propaganda a la pravda (which didnt work) to make us better people?

you realize that the best they are offering here is to contrive the existence of others to induce better behavior as they see it, in a real world, where the contrivance is gone, and the behavior is no longer forced by punitive means.

may i ask this researcher how do they propose that such things be implemented in a free society without using the states monopoly of force as in nazi germany or soviet russia to force compliance?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.