We’ve reported on a variety of different studies looking video games and various measures of aggression (you can check out our “Video Games / Technology” category, and our archives) and a fairly common reaction, often coming from an avid gamer, is that this simply isn’t true about him. Now one of the serious complications of doing psychological research is that our intuitions about how, or even what, we are doing can be dramatically wrong–this is why psychologists started doing experiments some one hundred and twenty odd years ago. You cannot refute a careful experiment with a personal declaratory statement, but you can turn a personal insight into a new experimental question: What aspect of personality might lead to different reactions in the face of aggressive and violent situations?
Brian Meier, Michael Robinson and Benjamin Wilkowski thought the personality factor of agreeableness might be playing a role in how individuals react to aggression-related cues. You know who agreeable people are–they are the ones who warm and friendly, and seem to be able to diffuse tense situations by bringing up helpful ideas.
In their first experiment, Meier and his team showed participants three words and asked them to identify which two words were associated with one another. For example, if presented with “torture,” “floor,” and “slash” you’d say that “torture” and “slash” are the related pair. Half the participants rated a series of aggressive words, and half rated a series of neutral words (like “buy,” “floor,” and “mop”). Following this priming procedure, participants were tested for levels of aggression using a competitive reaction time task. Participants were run in small groups, so they could see that there were several people in the lab being tested at the same time. In this competitive reaction time task, participants were told they were competing with another person to see who could react quicker to a sound. If they lose this simple race, they will hear a blast of noise; if they win, silence. Participants were also told that their competitor is setting the volume of the noise blast, and that they get to set the volume blast that this person will receive. Setting a higher volume reveals higher aggression. There are lots of interesting questions you can address with this situation, but of particular importance in this study is the very first noise setting the participants set–before they have lost any of the races. Any differences in this first noise level can be attributed to the preceding priming task involving either aggressive or neutral words.
The graph reveals that individuals who score low on agreeableness are dramatically impacted by the priming manipulation, with significantly higher noise settings following a session dealing with aggressive words. But what is particularly interesting is the lack of effect the aggressive prime had on the highly agreeable individuals–folks scoring high on the agreeableness scale were not negatively impacted by the aggressive priming. In other words, being highly agreeable seems to offer some kind of buffer against reacting aggressively, even after you’ve spend quite some time thinking about aggressive words. In fact, the data hint that the aggressive priming decreased subsequent aggression as measured by the first noise setting, and this led to Meier et al’s second experiment.
Instead of measuring aggression, in the second study Meier et al examined how words are related to one another in memory, which gives insight into how individuals might interpret and react to different situations. For example, if the words “dog” and “bite” are closely linked in your mind, you might interpret a dog as more of a threat than someone for whom the word “dog” is more closely linked with “pet.” Of course, personal history is going to play a major role in how words and ideas are associated. Participants were asked to categorize a long series of words as either prosocial (words like “admire,” “console,” and “forgive”) or antisocial (words like “blame,” “insult,” and “ridicule”). The words appeared randomly to the participants, and the critical analysis involves looking at how quickly individuals could correctly categorize a prosocial word that followed either another prosocial word, or an antisocial word. For example, are you faster to identify the word “praise” as prosocial when you’ve just identified “agree,” or when you’ve just identified “quarrel?”
When sorted by their agreeableness scores, opposing patterns appear. Individuals low in agreeableness are slower to identify a prosocial word that immediately followed an antisocial word. In striking contrast, individuals high in agreeableness are faster to identify prosocial words that immediately follow antisocial words. For highly agreeable individuals, the antisocial words are closely related to prosocial words–which might explain why similar individuals didn’t show aggressive behavior in the first experiment. Aggressive thoughts are not uniquely primed following the processing of aggressive words for highly agreeable people. In fact, they are primed for prosocial words!
This raises an interesting possibility: the key to decreasing aggressive behavior might be to focus on developing agreeable and prosocial reactions to situations. This is not necessarily an easy task–how hard is it to smile when you’d really like to snarl? But promoting caring and friendly behaviors might be easier than removing all violent media and video games from your son’s, your daughter’s, and even your own life.
Meier, B.P., Robinson, M. D. & Wilkowski, B. M. (2006). Turning the other cheek: Agreeableness and the regulation of aggression-related primes. Psychological Science, 17, 136-142.