Does movie violence affect the viewer?

Skitterphoto / Pixabay

Does movie media violence desensitize?

I heard this question asked the other night.  They didn’t ask me, but if they did, I’d have said, I didn’t think so.  The reason is that I have been exposed to a lot of media violence.  I have played Counter Strike and Call of Duty for over 10 years and have watched a lot of movie violence.

Even after all this, when I see an actual act of violence, I have an instant significant emotional, even physical, reaction to it.  The 1968 execution of Captain Bảy Lốp is one example.  I saw it once.  It affected me profoundly and I will not willingly see it again.

Based on this evidence, I would suggest that all my exposure to game and cinematic violence has not desensitized me to real violence.

The person to whom this question was actually addressed claimed there is no doubt that movie violence affects the viewer.

In one sense this is certainly true—one of the purposes of film, indeed all art, is to affect the viewer.  I think, though, that behind the statement was the tacit assumption that movie violence has significant negative effect.

I wouldn’t have been too worried about this claim except that it wasn’t about the violence in John Wick or The Walking Dead.  It was about the action sequences in The Avengers.  I wasn’t so sure about that.

Who is most affected by Media Violence?

James Potter brings together many studies on the effects of violence in On Media Violence.  Ted Turnau summarizes Potter’s findings in his book, Popologetics.

The data suggests that media violence can have an effect of viewers, “but the kinds of effects and the depth of those effects vary greatly depending on the individual viewer and his or her contexts.”

Those who are most affected media violence are:

  • those who watch a lot of television;
  • those who cannot differentiate between types of violence (small children or the mentally disabled);
  • those who already have an aggressive personality;
  • those who are already emotionally upset or angry when they see an episode of violence.

According to the research, “Family background seems to play an important role as well.  Children who come from strong families that teach children that violence is not acceptable do not act out aggressively after seeing media violence.”

Portrayal of Media Violence makes a difference.

How violence is portrayed also makes a significant difference as to how much it will affect a viewer.

Violence seems to have more of an effect

  • when the violence is portrayed realistically;
  • when violence is seen by the viewer as justified;
  • when the violent act seems to have no consequences;
  • when the violent act goes unpunished;
  • when the violence is done by an attractive person or a person who is demographically similar to the viewer;
  • when violence in linked to erotic content.

When violence has no effect

Violence seems to have little or no effect on the viewer:

  • when the violence is portrayed in a humourous fashion;
  • when violence is seen as having specific negative effects, such as pain to the victim, or when the perpetrator is punished;
  • when violence is done without malice or a revenge motive by a professional, such as a policeman or a soldier in a war movie.

The research seems to suggest that violence does, in fact, affect the viewers.  But it matters a great deal who the viewer is and the nature of the violence presented.




  1. Duncan Priebe


    First, I’d like to congratulate you on another well-written article and crudely drawn image. I would have found your post quite thought-provoking had I not already pondered this subject reached nearly identical conclusions, but enough silliness, let’s begin.

    In regards to the debate about the effects of media violence, the observation I find most profound is that people, like yourself, who have been exposed to an abundance of media violence still find genuine violence grotesque and disturbing. I have also witnessed acts of violence in movies, television and video games too numerous to recount, yet I’m still troubled by my encounters with genuine violence.

    Our experiences with media violence may not affect our reaction to real violence, but our reaction to media violence is almost certainly affected by our encounters with violence in our lives. If a scene from a movie depicting a rape were shown to a person who had personal experience with rape, their reaction would likely differ greatly from another who did not share such an experience. Witnessing real violence may sensitize us to media violence, or, put another way, our lack of experience with real violence allows us the luxury of insenstivity.

    It does seem that most people are easily able to distinguish media violence from real violence, reacting to each in a profoundly independent manner. Although I would argue that media violence does not encourage violent behavior in stable, mature individuals or desensitize its audience to acts of violence, it may covertly affect the way we think about violence.

    Media violence may not influence our reaction to genuine violence, but it may cause us to speak or think about violent acts with insensitivity. If we have not had a profound experience with a form of violence, we may be be susceptible to a detached attitude toward the idea of such behavior. This doesn’t mean that we approve of such acts, only that our contemplation of them is devoid of consequence.

    The scarcity of our encounters with violence allows us to treat them as hypothetical situations and our experience with media violence bolsters this position by feeding us images of violence without consequence. Sure, the characters may suffer, but we do not, for it is only through a truly well-told story that fiction may impart sensitivity toward the suffering of others.

    I’ll always recall the way that Schindler’s List portrayed the gravity and horror of murder, yet somehow I’ll manage to forget every line in The Expendables 2.

    • Duncan Priebe

      There’s another facet to this matter which complicates things ever so slightly: sport violence. Whether its a fight during a hockey game or a boxing match, violence in sports is viewed in a unique way.

      Mixed martial arts, for example, is a combat sport where two competitors are locked inside a ring or cage and told to incapacitate each other by nearly any means. Chokes, joint locks, punches, kicks and elbows are all legitimate tactics for conquering an opponent and the result of such techniques is often gruesome and bloody. Many find themselves disturbed by the violence in mixed martial arts, yet this discomfort is very different from what we would experience if we were to witness an equally violent street fight.

      There’s some unspoken sanctity in sport violence — an understanding that the violence is not driven by hatred or survival instinct and that safety measures will ensure the participants aren’t truly in danger. Even in combat sports like mixed martial arts, where violence is expected, not discouraged, there is an innate respect for the competitive nature of such behavior.

      As you already mentioned, the effect of witnessing violence is diminished when that violence is carried out by professionals, which may help to explain our reverence for sport violence. The motivation behind violent acts seems to influence our perception of those acts. A police officer’s motivation is justice, a soldier’s motivation is the safety and prosperity of his homeland, and a mixed martial artist’s motivation is his prestige and livelihood; these are widely considered noble pursuits.

      I could go on, for this is obviously an interesting and complex subject, but I believe that the length of my reply has now surpassed the length of your article.

      Sorry for hijacking your site!

    • Trent

      Thanks Duncan, I have been wondering if the crudely drawn images worked. Thank you for stretching this conversation even further. That our experiences with actual violence affects our encounters with media violence is a great point. Couldn’t agree more (especially final sentence).

    • Trent

      Regarding sport violence. The MMA really has gone too far, hasn’t it? Too far for me anyway. I used to get a kick our of professional wrestling because it was actually theatre. I heard this week that the appetite for violence in modern sport is correlative to gladitorial stuff in ancient Rome, this sort of thing, the theory goes, comes toward the end of a civilizations life. Hmmm….. Thanks for your comments, and don’t worry about hijacking. It’s fun, thanks.

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