Onscreen Bullying Primes the Brain for Aggression

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New research shows there’s more reason to worry about TV violence than we previously thought. A Linfield College study suggests that emotional bullying on the screen activates aggressive scripts in the brain.


Mean screens prime the brain for aggression, says Jennifer Ruh Linder, a psychology professor at Linfield College.

A new study by researchers at Linfield College (Ore.), Iowa State University and Brigham Young University shows that onscreen relational aggression, including social exclusion, gossip and emotional bullying, may activate the neural networks that guide behavior.

Mean screens prime the brain for aggression, says Jennifer Ruh Linder, a psychology professor at Linfield College.

“Past research has shown that viewing physical violence on TV activates aggressive scripts in the brain, but our findings suggest that watching both onscreen physical or relational aggression activates those cognitive scripts,” Linder said. “Viewers don’t simply choose to imitate TV characters or make a conscious decision to engage in aggressive behavior. Aggressive reactions are more automatic and less conscious than most people assume.”

“Historically, schools and parents have focused on physical aggression, but children are far more likely to be relationally aggressive than physically aggressive,” said Iowa State University researcher Douglas Gentile.

In the study of 250 college women, individuals were evaluated after viewing one of three video clips to assess — not their behavior — but their cognitive patterns. One clip depicted physical aggression, including a gun and knife fight that ended in murder; a second clip portrayed relational aggression, where girls steal boyfriends, spread malicious gossip and kick someone out of their social circle; and a third clip was simply a scary scene, one that would raise the heartbeat.

Researchers assessed physiological arousal and found that all three films produced similar levels of excitement. They then measured reaction times when aggressive or neutral words flashed on a screen. Participants were told only that the study would examine how viewing fast-paced action scenes influences reaction time.

Participants who had watched either aggressive film clip had slight delays when processing words that depict aggression. “Slower reactions mean the brain is doing more processing,” Linder said. “The individuals ascribed more meaning to words connected with aggression.

“When aggressive scripts are activated, aggressive responses to external stimuli will be more likely,” she said, “so our results help explain why past research has found that viewing both physical and relational aggression increases the chance that viewers will behave in a hostile manner.”

The researchers say more study will be needed to determine whether their results are gender-specific or not and whether this script activation indeed changes behavior. The research was recently published in the journal Aggressive Behavior.

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Nadene LeCheminant
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