Cognitive Daily

i-4403d89abafd665cbd5328faa295a793-castillo.jpgThis past Wednesday, Alvaro Castillo drove a 1997 Dodge Caravan into the parking lot of Orange High School in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Today’s Charlotte Observer has the rest of the story:

He threw a smoke bomb onto a vehicle in the parking lot, then got two guns and ammunition out of the van and started shooting…

About 10 shots hit the school’s walls in the courtyard near the cafeteria…

Two students were injured. A bullet grazed one in the shoulder, and another was hit by broken glass…

At Castillo’s home, a more gruesome scene was found: his father’s dead body, shot four times, covered with a sheet. After killing his father, Castillo had recorded his thoughts on video: “Look at me. I’m not even crying. I just killed him and I feel fine,” he said. In the video, Castillo spends most of his time offering commentary on violent movies playing on his small TV. Did these violent films, which he says he’s been watching since he was eight years old, have anything to do with the murder and shooting?

We’ve reported a lot about media violence here at Cognitive Daily, and it’s always been one of our most controversial topics. Avid gamers will swear that playing violent games doesn’t cause them to be more aggressive. Or they’ll just swear. I would like to point readers to some research we discussed briefly last year:

One Belgian study split boys in a home for delinquents into two cottages. One cottage was shown violent films every night for 5 days, while the other cottage ran nonviolent films. The “frequency of hitting, choking, slapping, and kicking their cottage-mates” was significantly higher in the violent movie cottage than in the nonviolent cottage. Even in another study of children in ordinary schools, exposure to violent films led to an increase in physical attacks in a game of floor hockey afterward.

These are just a couple of examples of studies that demonstrate a causal relationship between exposure to violent media and violence. And then there’s this tidbit:

When children were exposed to violent TV at a young age, they were significantly more likely to be aggressive as adults. For example, 42 percent of men who watched a lot of violent TV as children reported pushing, grabbing, or shoving their spouses, compared to only 22 percent of those who watched less violent TV.

This data doesn’t show a causal link, but it’s indeed a dramatic result. But can violent media itself be held to blame? Maybe these men were just raised badly. And indeed, some of the research backs this up:

Parents do appear to have a significant role in the child’s response to media violence: if parents express disapproval or restrict children’s exposure to it, those children are likely to display lower levels of aggression.

The evidence from the Castillo adds support to the notion that parenting may be a significant — perhaps the most significant — part of the equation. From the Observer article:

Castillo also says on the video that his father slapped — but never punched — his head, back and rear. His father disciplined his mother “like a child,” he says.

Clearly Castillo’s abusive upbringing had a lot to do with his shooting spree. But did violent movies help egg him on? It’s difficult to say where one influence began and the next one ended. It’s certainly likely that viewing so much violence at such a young age desensitized Castillo.

It’s equally clear that turning a blind eye to the violence that pervades our society will do little to prevent future Castillos from emerging. Should we censor violent media? Probably not. But parents should be aware that violent media isn’t benign.

Finally, while few children grow up to be mass murderers, many more grow up to be spouse- and child-abusers. The pervasiveness of violent movies, games, and TV shows may be part of the reason.

Comments

  1. #1 Ompus
    September 1, 2006

    The PC argument is certainly “yes.” The conservative argument rests upon suppositions of absolute choice and free-will. But before there is any debate on the matter, it should be made clear, now and repeatedly, that such murders, whatever the motives or deep-rooted causes, are extrordinarily uncommon events. Even if Castillos was driven to kill by violent media, his response is, if not unique, certainly one in many million.

  2. #2 Gary
    September 1, 2006

    The public needs to learn that such phenomena and this act, are multiply determined. Yes, violent media have been shown to be influential, this is one factor—and even that is multi-faceted, but there are many other factors that can also play a role. People expect simplistic answers and have naive conceptions of cause-effect. I also would agree with Ompus that the media needs to learn how to report base rates more responsibly. Psychology’s problem is how to develop coherent theoretical models that integrate not only the relevant variables, but the different levels of analysis required to better account for such events.

  3. #3 Caledonian
    September 1, 2006

    Finally, while few children grow up to be mass murderers, many more grow up to be spouse- and child-abusers. The pervasiveness of violent movies, games, and TV shows may be part of the reason.

    A much, much greater part of the reason is that people who live with and among extreme psychological and physical violence tend to grow up to be spouse- and child-abusers.

  4. #4 Carol
    September 1, 2006

    I have to point out that I had a very shocking experience with violent media myself several years ago. In order to create time in my life to take some college courses in the evenings, I got rid of my television and did not go to any movies for about six months. At the end of this time, I decided to celebrate by going to a movie which I anticipated that I would enjoy. Instead, I was shocked – not at the movie, but at my inability to handle the violence which I had taken for granted and even quite enjoyed a mere six months previously. The movie was no more violent than anything I had seen before, but I had lost my tolerance.

  5. #5 Gary
    September 2, 2006

    I know psych researchers have found people more insensitive to violence after more violent media exposure, but Carol’s experience suggests we should find something like withdrawal symptoms after removing such exposure. I am not sure if that has been examined, but it would be interesting.

  6. #6 ArmchairAnarchist
    September 2, 2006

    I have to point out that I had a very shocking experience with violent media myself several years ago. In order to create time in my life to take some college courses in the evenings, I got rid of my television and did not go to any movies for about six months. At the end of this time, I decided to celebrate by going to a movie which I anticipated that I would enjoy. Instead, I was shocked – not at the movie, but at my inability to handle the violence which I had taken for granted and even quite enjoyed a mere six months previously. The movie was no more violent than anything I had seen before, but I had lost my tolerance.

    I have been television-free for six years now, and I find it frightening to observe the visceral reactions I experience when catching small segments of soap operas or police dramas in takeaway restaurant waiting areas or wherever else. When I was younger, I used to mock the notion of desensitivisation, but the longer I stay away from broadcast media, the more I realise I was blind to the truth.

    Obviously, banning such material is not the answer, but as has been mentioned, parental responses and attitudes to such programs and movies plays a big part in how they are assimilated by young viewers. I despair of the easily-enraged violence of British youth, and when I see reports like this from the US, I despair even further.

    The problem isn’t the media, per se, it is more societies that glorify or legitimise violence as a way to further one’s arguments or beliefs.

  7. #7 Ernest Ryan
    September 3, 2006

    What almost all these teenage killers have in common is that they had been receiving psychiatric treatment and were on antidepressants. All the killers Alvaro Castillo named were on antidepressants. This includes Eric Harris at Columbine, Kip Kinkle in Oregon, Jeff Weise at Red Lake High School and almost every other teen that has gone on a shooting rampage in the last fifteen to twenty years. Before that you never saw this.

    The drug companies acted fast after Columbine to prevent the media from naming what drug school shooters were on but you can bet that Alvaro Castillo, who had received psychiatric treatment, did not come away from a visit to his psychiatrist with a prescription for headache medication. The National Guard did not reject him because he was taking aspirin.

    Antidepressants are what make kids and adults turn homicidal. It is not video games, violent TV or an argument with parents or school officials. In the recent retrial of Andrea Yates, who was on the antidepressant Effexor when she drowned all her kids, it came out in an AP Wire story that Effexor now carries the warning that it can cause Homicidal Ideation. That means that some of the people taking that antidepressant are going to have a strong urge to go out and kill people. Since most antidepressants have the same action on brain chemistry (adjusting the level of Serotonin in the brain) it is quite likely that they all cause some people to become homicidal. Certainly there is evidence of many, many people becoming homicidal on all the antidepressants, such as Prozac (Kip Kinkle and Jeff Weise), Luvox (Eric Harris), Wellbutrin (Seth Privacky), Zoloft (Christopher Pitman), Effexor (Andrea Yates), etc.

    Very recently the FDA put a Black Box warning on all antidepressants saying they cause suicidal ideation and suicide. It explains why a person like Alvaro Castillo would say he wanted to die. Antidepressants make some people, especially kids, suicidal and homicidal. This is so much the case that doctors in Great Britain have been told to quit prescribing them to anyone under 18. Do you think it is anything but the drug lobby that prevents that from happening here in America?

    The media has let America down time and time again. It was late to tell us that smoking causes cancer. There were many thousands of people who died of heart complications after taking Vioxx before the press woke up and made the connection. I wonder if half of them are not on antidepressants themselves for all the omissions they exhibit in investigating these senseless murders and school shooting sprees. But I guess if I owned a drug company and was raking in billions on antidepressant sales, I would buy myself a controlling interest in some newspapers and media companies to make sure nobody said anything bad about the drugs that I was hooking kids on.

    Until we demand some decent investigation and honest reporting in the media, the reasons for this kind of carnage will continue. Just days before Alvaro Castillo killed his father and shot at his school, a man named Omeed Popal went on a rampage with his SUV in the streets of San Francisco. He killed one person in Fremont earlier and mowed down 14 others in San Francisco. Guess what? He had been under psychiatric care, was on some unnamed medication and had been having severe nightmares that someone was trying to kill him. After police apprehended him, he stated that he wanted to kill people. The media has tried to make the case that because the man was of Muslim decent that he was a terrorist. Well I will tell you what. Antidepressants and psychiatry are making homegrown terrorists left and right and until people wake up to this and quit allowing mental health screening programs to come into schools and put thousands of kids on antidepressants, we are going to keep repeating this carnage and anyone could be the next victim.

  8. #8 Michael Anes
    September 3, 2006

    How come it’s always “We shouldn’t ban video games?” Are ya’ scared? One cannot out of one side of your mouth applaud the work of Anderson and Bushman and other great researchers and simultaneously ignore data…data such as this:

    Myth 9. The effects of violent video games are trivially small.
    Facts: Meta-analyses reveal that violent video game effect sizes are larger than the effect of second hand tobacco smoke on lung cancer, the effect of lead exposure to I.Q. scores in children, and calcium intake on bone mass. Furthermore, the fact that so many youths are exposed to such high levels of video game violence further increases the societal costs of this risk factor (Rosenthal, 1986).

    Comments? I’m tired of all this wishywashyness, frankly. In my opinion as a cognitive psychologist with neuroscientific interests, we have no idea what the future consequences of all this violent media is, but I think we are on the rising curve of seeing what’s coming.

    Of course I understand that many of the studies going into the above metanalyses are correlational, but that ignores the extensive experimental work going on which provides great converging evidence of the deleterious effects of viewing violence on behavior.

  9. #9 David Group
    September 3, 2006

    Someone once said (unfortunately, I forget who) “Genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger.” Unfortunately, there’s a pretty heavy finger on the trigger lately. Parental warnings and ratings mean nothing, as kids have access to everything these days. BTW, is there any studies on the effects based on *how* the violence is depicted or who is committing it?

  10. #10 Michael Anes
    September 3, 2006

    Good question, David. There is sanctioned violence (he’s saving civilization! a al Tekken) or indiscriminate, nonsanctioned violence. One might think sanctioned violence does not lead (or does not lead as often) to the physiological arousal, increased hostile and aggressive cognitions and aggressive behaviors seen in video game studies, while unsanctioned violence does. As far as I know this idea is brand new to the debate.

    In some work I did with a former colleague at a former job that remains unpublished, we found that after playing Tekken when given a more prosocial message (saving civilization) there were greater noise blasts given to a fake co-player (the computer) in a competitive game compared to afer playing a customized version of Tekken where the leader has an anti-social agenda.

    You’ve identified a key questions there, I think, and answers remain to be seen.

  11. #11 Caledonian
    September 3, 2006

    It would be nice if we distinguished between becoming desensitized to a class of actions and committing those actions, too.

  12. #12 DavidD
    September 4, 2006

    “Did these violent films, which he says he’s been watching since he was eight years old, have anything to do with the murder and shooting?”

    Anything? Of course! A significant factor? I find that hard to believe. One problem that these studies don’t measure is that the violence in the media doesn’t come from evil spirits. It comes from anger, resentment and that society doesn’t allow us the violence it once did, whether toward scapegoats or otherwise. Expression of anger safely is a tricky business for everyone, but I don’t think generally suppressing that expression in some way is a good idea. I wish everyone’s anger was so manageable as to be expressed simply by learning to say, “I don’t like that,” but unfortunately the society we live in is a lot more abusive than that.

    It’s like the comment against antidepressants. It’s no mystery that antidepressants activate all sorts of behavior, including suicide and homicide. That’s a reason not just to give someone an antidepressant and walk away, but it doesn’t keep antidepressants from being a good thing on the whole.

    I’m sure that in a perfect world Alvaro Castillo would not have killed his father, but I don’t know that the road to such perfection goes through banning either violent media or antidepressants, for the same reason. They help some people. I’m more sure of that with antidepressants, but I suspect it’s true of both.

  13. #13 idlemind
    September 6, 2006

    I think we have to consider second-order effects as well: violent media may or may not increase the propensity to violence, but how about other changes in attitude? Does it make people more or less fearful of others? More or less trusting? More or less accepting of differences in others?

    DavidD: there is a difference between the two. There is at least some evidence that antidepressants work for some (but not all) people. But I don’t think there is any evidence of violent media reducing violence for a particular population.

  14. #14 Autodryadist
    September 9, 2006

    Cannot today’s youth make a -proper- film reference while enjoying high school?

    It’s not the violence, it’s the way in which it’s licensed; and in his case it’s prima faice latchkey ratings that have racked his …what, father-lunchroom frustrations?… into a loamy double-autoimprisonment (he set himself up, and then there are prosecutorial rules with degeneracies to pharmacocounsular audit.)

    If only we couched enticements to grab and bitch around some gusto, to pick up a sport with a venue that can sell enough ads to let one improve, to go see some fatherbending snakes on a fatherbending plane, all by way of entertainment license instances as something better!

    Perhaps; not instances. Perhaps as things that get you other ideas, they were so convincing otherwise. Perhaps as less-blithely filtered content management.

    Rather than a bass-heavy rifle and motor assault to counter a repetitive mash of dollar-cost-averaged (Harry Fox Inc! I’m calling you out!) muzak forcefed at many daily social intersections, how about presenting me with violence as a familial lob shot between competitive adsense buyers? It’s Woody Allen mashed up with Segal Against The Content Managers.

  15. #15 Q Pac
    August 6, 2009

    Its not violence in TV or video games that is to blame. Everyone else in society is fine, we’re all fine. The blame goes to abusive parenting. Its a sad state of affairs.

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