Do we really enjoy violence?

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Explaining Cultural Fascination with Violence

Associate Professor Aaron Boyson and Jessica Pospeck

Jessica Pospeck graduated from UMD in 2011 with an undergraduate degree in Marketing. During her senior year at UMD, she completed an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Project (UROP). However, it was not a business topic that caught her attention and formed the basis of her UROP.

It was during a class, taught by Associate Professor Aaron Boyson of UMD’s Communication Department, that Pospeck decided to participate in a UROP. During a lecture, Boyson referenced a study that had been conducted in 2005 by Glenn Sparks, John Sherry, and Craig Lubsen at Purdue University.

The goal of the project was to attempt to explain the Violence Media Enjoyment Paradox, which is the term Boyson and Pospeck have given to the odd finding in the research literature that people don't seem to enjoy violence, despite its popularity. Boyson and Pospeck used “Excitation Transfer Theory" to attempt to explain the phenomenon. Excitation transfer theory relies on the misattribution of physiological arousal from one environmental stimulus to another nearby it in time. They hypothesized that arousal from music in the film may be accidentally attributed to violent content in the film, such that people may actually think they enjoy violence even though Sparks, Sherry, and Lubsen found that people didn't miss it when it was gone.

Boyson proposed to the class that the study could be expanded upon and that it would make an ideal research topic. Pospeck decided on the spot that she wanted to do a UROP and that the Violent Media Enjoyment Paradox was her topic of choice. “This research has very practical applications in my field of study,” Pospeck said. “Being a marketing student, it has applications in advertising. Consumers are less attentive to advertisements aired during violent programming. It stands to reason that decreasing the amount of violence on television would increase the amount of attention paid to ads.”

Fugitive Poster  

Deliberating upon the best way to conduct their research, Pospeck and Boyson decided that simply repeating Sparks, Sherry, and Lubsen’s original study wouldn’t be enough. They sought both to replicate and expand the boundaries of the original experiment, screening four (rather than two) different versions of the 1993 film The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford. They made use of the violence-edited version used in original study, an unedited version with all of the violence intact, an edited version in which music and sound were cut out during violent sequences, and a fourth in which Sparks, Sherry, and Lubsen’s violence-edited version was also changed to dampen the film’s sound.

Pospeck and Boyson then began setup for their testing. They intended to mimic the original experiment as much as possible, holding the four screenings of the film simultaneously in different rooms. This way, subjects were least likely to notice or discuss that the films were edited. Each screening averaged 50 viewers, and the subjects, mostly students, were then provided with a survey about the movie. The survey featured questions regarding how well the subjects enjoyed their version of the film and what parts they enjoyed the most.

“We were able to replicate the original Sparks, Sherry, and Lubsen study," Pospeck said. In that area, their data were statistically significant. "It was in the 'expansion' of the study, " Pospeck noted, "with the additional editing of the music/sound to show misattribution, that our data were insignificant, but headed in the right direction." Boyson and Pospeck are currently working on publishing their study’s findings, and when asked what she planned to do next, Pospeck revealed that she hoped to continue in her research as a Business Administration masters student here at UMD. “Within the next two years, we hope to progress the study further,” she said. “We can do more with the movies and edit them further to push for more conclusive results.”

Written by Zach Lunderberg 12/15/2011

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