Are people victims of the media they watch or crafty exploiters of it?

If you spend too much time watching Quentin Tarantino movies or playing Grand Theft Auto, you may eventually snap—becoming antisocial at best, homicidal at worst. So goes the thinking of parents’ groups and politicians who want to censor the content of music, movies, video games and other media.

While research has shown that the entertainment people consume can affect them, sometimes in measurable physiological ways, two new studies suggest that the media may indeed manipulate people and their emotions, but people also consciously use it to affect their own state of mind.

Research recently published in the journal Political Psychology demonstrates how the different emotional angles of a story can affect people’s long-term understanding of world events. A Carnegie Mellon team surveyed over 1,700 Americans about their responses to the happenings on September 11, 2001, specifically asking subjects to evaluate their reactions of sadness and anger.

“We studied emotion and judgment in an intense situation for which judgment could be highly consequential, affecting public opinion and policy,” said study co-author Deborah Small via e-mail.

The scientists discovered that when they asked questions priming for anger, the respondents often mentioned the causes of the event more than when the survey asked about sadness. The researchers believe the anger response—since it increases people’s focus on why the attacks occurred and who launched them—might prompt a desire for retaliation, and therefore have direct consequences for the type of policy voters would support.

“Advertisers and politicians do use emotion, and it likely is effective (i.e., arousing anger to encourage blame and action; arousing fear to promote safety and precautionary behavior),” said Small, now an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania

But the way media manipulates consumers is only half the story. According to a separate study published in Human Communications Research, people intentionally seek out certain types of news stories in order to enter or sustain a certain emotional state, thereby using media’s effects for their own purposes.

“There has been a lot of research about how people use the media to optimize their mood,” said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a co-author of the paper and assistant professor of communications at The Ohio State University. “Our idea was that often times you’re not just trying to optimize your mood, you’re trying to adjust it in preparation for anticipated situations.”

During this study, a supervisor artificially induced anger by insulting the test subjects’ social skills. Half of the then-smoldering test group was told they would be able to fill out a job evaluation survey about the supervisor after the study. The other half were not given the chance to get back at their antagonist.

The subjects then sat down in front of computers offering a selection of news stories, some of which had been pre-tested as inducing negative reactions (“Police are Caught in the Act of Beating a Civilian”) and some positive ones (“Cracking Cancer’s Code”). The scientists found that, among the group anticipating the chance for retribution, men spent significantly more time looking at negative news stories while women sought out good news. There was no difference between the genders in the group who didn’t get to fill out the survey.

Knoblock-Westerwick believes each gender chose the particular types of stories that would emotionally prepare them for their anticipated payback, using the response they knew they’d get for their own advantage.

“Women actually feel it’s not appropriate for them to try to get even with the provoker,” she said. “That’s why they used positive media to regulate their mood and get rid of the anger. For men, it’s expected of them to try to get even, so they try to stay in the negative mood. Thus, they are looking at the negative messages in order to actually get back at the supervisor.”

Originally published April 2, 2006

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