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Study Says Violent Lyrics Increase Aggression

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A study released yesterday by the American Psychological Association says songs with violent lyrics increase aggression related thoughts and emotions, contrary to popular myths about providing a catharsis:

    In a series of five experiments involving over 500 college students, researchers from Iowa State University and the Texas Department of Human Services examined the effects of seven violent songs by seven artists and eight nonviolent songs by seven artists. The students listened to the songs and were given various psychological tasks to measure aggressive thoughts and feelings. One such task involved participants classifying words that can have both aggressive and nonaggressive meanings, such as rock and stick.

    To control for factors not related to the content of the lyrics, the violent and nonviolent songs were sung by the same artists and were in the same musical style in three of the experiments.

    ….Results of the five experiments show that violent songs led to more aggressive interpretations of ambiguously aggressive words, increased the relative speed with which people read aggressive vs. nonaggressive words, and increased the proportion of word fragments (such as h_t) that were filled in to make aggressive words (such as hit). The violent songs increased feelings of hostility without provocation or threat, according to the authors, and this effect was not the result of differences in musical style, specific performing artist or arousal properties of the songs. Even the humorous violent songs increased aggressive thoughts.

    The violent-song increases in aggressive thoughts and feelings have implications for real world violence, according to lead researcher Craig A. Anderson, Ph.D. of Iowa State University. “Aggressive thoughts can influence perceptions of ongoing social interactions, coloring them with an aggressive tint. Such aggression-biased interpretations can, in turn, instigate a more aggressive response – verbal or physical – than would have been emitted in a nonbiased state, thus provoking an aggressive escalatory spiral of antisocial exchanges,” said Dr. Anderson.

    ….Repeated exposure to violent lyrics may contribute to the development of an aggressive personality and could indirectly create a more hostile social environment, although the authors say it is possible that the effects of violent songs may last only a fairly short time. [APA]

I never bought the “catharsis” argument anyway because other studies have shown that temper tantrums don’t decrease negativity, they increase it. I don’t want to censor anyone, but I do want artists to take responsibility for their creative actions – “just reflecting reality” is a cop out.

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About Eric Olsen

  • James Russell

    Funnily enough, there is still no explanation for why the majority of fans of “violent” music, films or books are [i]not[/i] transformed thereby into psychopathic killing machines…

  • Phillip Winn

    The majority of people who eat Salmonella-tainted food don’t die, either. Nevertheless the comparatively minor harm of Salmonella is still bad.

    Do you realize what your comment sounded like? Eric pointed out research that indicates that violent lyrical content increases feelings of hostility in listeners regardless of any other factors. You responded by seeming to dismiss the research entirely based on the fact that people don’t actually go out and murder other people. Is that really what you meant to do?


  • Michael Croft

    Old Hickory said we could take ’em by surprise
    If we didn’t fire our muskets til we looked ’em in the eyes
    We held our fire til we seen their faces well.
    then we opened up with squirrel guns and really gave ’em..well.

    We fired our guns and the British kept a’comin.
    There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago.
    We fired once more and they began to runnin’
    on down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

    I never liked the catharsis theory, but I am also leery of tightly coupling one of many possible “influences” with a particular undesirable outcome. Especially in this case as the tests may very well show a temporary increase that really doesn’t increase much more than momentary aggression.

    But even if it turns out to increase “aggresion” in a significant fashion I do not consider it a mitigating factor in a criminal case if a defendant with normal intelligence claims to have committed a violent crime under the influence of Judas Priest, Tom and Jerry, Weird Tales, Final Fantasy 7, or D&D. Barring cases of mental deficiency, individuals are responsible for their actions no matter what they saw on MTV’s Jackass.

    My biggest concern with this is that it’s going to be used as a hammer against current musical trends, despite the inconvenient evidence that glorification of violence and criminality isn’t a new phenomenon in popular music by any means. I don’t think anyone was ever given a reduced sentence for claiming that Johnny Cash told them it was OK to shoot a man just to watch him die. Tex Ritter didn’t “cause” violence by singing “Sam Hall”. Aussies don’t become thieves because of “Waltzing Matilda”, and recruiting sergeants haven’t been assaulted despite the popularity of “Arthur McBride” in the 1830s.

    Even if it turns out to be a causitive relationship and not merely correlation, I’m not convinced it’s worth acting on. The implied conclusion:”therefore music that increases agression is bad because aggression is always bad” doesn’t do a lot for me. If an aggressive Phil Ochs or Billy Bragg song gets me really worked up about an issue to the point where I do something about it rather than sit on my butt, is that bad?

    The brush is too broad, the connection to harm is too weak, and the similarity to pop-psyche flavor-of-the-month scare tactics are too strong for me to think much of this. OK, they may have proved that music can affect people, but I don’t think that anyone who makes or listens to music really doubted that.

  • Eric Olsen

    I wasn’t advocating any particular action either, other than saying artists and listeners alike should be aware of the affect music, and in this particular instance, violent lyrics, have. Like anything else, the young and unsophisticated are most vulnerable to “cultural coersion.” I would say if your child listens to nothing but music with violent lyrics, it would behoove you to discuss it with him/her to at least make him/her aware of the impact. The fact that it seems to be temporary is important, but a continuous series of temporaries is permanent as long as it lasts.

  • Michael Croft

    I agree, and I’m perfectly happy with any parent raising their children as they see fit and hope that many take your advice. I’m not convinced they’ve proven anything novel or that it won’t be misused by people who don’t approve of my ideas of liberty and freedom. I think that ‘for the sake of the children!” is a politician’s tactic when s/he has no other acceptable grounds for infringing liberties and I have become very cynical about anyone who wraps themselves in the “protect the children” blanket.

  • Eric Olsen

    I am equally cynical about “for the children” because it is open-ended and can be used to justify most any kind of curb, but this study does show that not ALL concerns about the impact of popular culture on the psyche – especially of children – are unfounded.

    I still oppose censorship (see Wal-Mart), but I think labeling is a reasonable compromise. Of course in the case of Wal-Mart, a parental advisory label is the kiss of death, and is de facto censorship.

  • Cal Ulmann

    You should just come out and say it: Don’t listen to too much Mobb Deep.

  • Phillip Winn

    Media influence as a defense strategy is ridiculous. When it comes down to it, we are all influenced in almost every action we make by one thing or another, but we still make the choices that lead us where we are.

    To deny the influence of culture on actions as James Russell did in #1 is silly and possibly dangerous. By recognizing the influences, we can mentally counter them or be aware of them before they affect our actions dramatically.

    To play up the influence of culture on actions and regulate as a result is similarly silly. The foods we eat affect our blood sugar and our moods – should we ban all sweets? Traffic is a hugely stressful thing for most people, and stress is a #1 killer. Should we ban traffic?

    Artists of all sorts should be aware that their choices do affect other people, and “consumers” of art should be aware that they will internalize at least some of what they’re seeing or hearing. That’s all. Nothing else.

  • Eric Olsen

    Or Cannibal Corpse

  • Eric Olsen

    Very well summarized P, thanks.

  • James Russell

    Philip, please do me the courtesy of actually reading what I wrote and not putting words in my mouth (or fingers, as the case may be). You might notice that I did NOT claim violent media has no influence at all. Even I know people can be swayed by media, and a saddening amount of testimony exists that songs, films and books have provided inspiration for a saddening number of criminal acts.

    Let me repeat what I actually said:

    Funnily enough, there is still no explanation for why the majority of fans of “violent” music, films or books are not transformed thereby into psychopathic killing machines…

    Observe the use of the word “majority”, which I used specifically to express my opinion that the majority of people who enjoy violent media are not inspired to do bad things by it, implicitly recognising what I have now explicitly stated, i.e. that a minority of them can be and are thus inspired. If I thought violent media have no influence whatsoever, I’d have said that instead of what I actually did say.

  • Phillip Winn

    Funnily enough, there is still no explanation for vagaries in tea prices in China.

    If you don’t want your statements applied to the post at hand, don’t make them. To respond to an article regarding the effect of song lyrics on violent response with a statement suggesting – even vaguely – that it didn’t apply in some circumstances is to suggest irrelevancy.

    Otherwise your comment was appropos of nothing at all, like mine about tea in China.

    Don’t they teach logic in schools any more?

  • James Russell

    Whatever… in future I will be careful to only make comments that don’t say anything contradicting the post. If that’s what I have to do to avoid bei g misunderstood and misrepresented, that’s what I’ll do.

  • Amanda

    well i dont agree i think that is the kid is dumb enough to kill someone and say “the music made me do it” or something they shouldnt even be in society…music lyrics is just an excuse….its the maturity level…nothing else

  • The Searcher

    It’s humorous to watch how, after psychometricians publish certain findings, they get a slew of rebuttals that begin with “yeah, but…” and don’t even address the findings directly.

    We can expect to see politicians, religious leaders and the media interchange correlation and causation to suit their respective agendas.

  • Mark Saleski

    i’d like to see a similar study to see if the following media events increase violent thoughts/actions:

    -watching an hour of the WWE

    -watching an nfl football game

    -watching ann coulter on fox