How Do Movies and TV Influence Behavior?


In early 1972 the Surgeon General’s Office of the United States National Institutes of Health announced that for the first time scientific evidence had been assembled from a number of behavioral studies that showed a causal link between the exposure of children to televised violence and their subsequent aggressive behavior. This meant that violence on television or in movies could stimulate or influence some children to participate in aggressive or violent behavior.

At about the same time my own research at the University of Utah showed that children who had been heavily exposed to violence on TV could also become somewhat desensitized to it compared with children who had seen little or no TV. This would suggest a possible emotional blunting of the individual to violence witnessed or even a potential “turning off” of conscience and concern in the presence of violence.

Many social psychologists have been concerned by the recently identified phenomenon known as “bystander apathy,” where people seem willing to stand by and watch while others are injured or killed, and the observers will do nothing to help the victim. This suggests an unfeeling or indifferent response by citizens in the presence of suffering on the part of others.

One possible explanation for this apathy, especially in the larger urban areas, is that many individuals have become desensitized to violence witnessed primarily in the media. And while in the United States available data show an enormous amount of violence on TV and in movies, this is an issue and problem common to many of the culturally advanced nations of the world where a high percentage of the populace have TV sets.

Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham has commented, “Through TV and moving pictures a child may see more violence in thirty minutes than the average adult experiences in a lifetime. What children see on the screen is violence as an almost casual commonplace of daily living. Violence becomes the fundamental principle of society, the natural law of humanity. Killing is as common as taking a walk, a gun more natural than an umbrella. Children learn to take pride in force and violence and to feel ashamed of ordinary sympathy. They are encouraged to forget that people have feelings.”

A second major issue of concern, in addition to the desensitization of sympathetic feelings, is derived from the work of a Stanford University psychologist, Albert Bandura, in the area of modeling and imitative learning.

In recent years he and a number of associates have amassed a great deal of evidence that has repeatedly and powerfully shown how live models or those on TV and on the theater screen can teach new behavior patterns and influence or even change opinions, attitudes, and values.

Many of the U.S. Surgeon General’s studies that led to the conclusion that violence on the screen could cause aggressive behavior in some children stemmed from work in the area of imitative learning or modeling. This evidence suggests that TV and motion pictures are powerful teaching tools, for good or evil.

Advertisers spend two and a half billion dollars a year on TV advertising in the U.S. on the assumption that commercials can influence people to buy their products rather than the products of their competitors.

Politicians often engage in saturation blitzes on TV, spending large sums of money in an effort to sway voter opinion and behavior in their direction. This too is done on the assumption, and with some supporting scientific evidence, that the media are powerful determiners of behavior, whether it be in selling a bar of soap or attracting votes to a particular candidate.

There appears to be little doubt that television and motion pictures have significant power to inform, educate, persuade, and sometimes even change behavior.

The general notion behind modeling, or imitative learning, is that if you want someone to adopt a new behavior, you show him a live or televised model of someone exhibiting this behavior under glamorous and attractive conditions. For example, a young man may be afraid of snakes. You wish to “cure” him of this malady. You show him a cute little girl playing with a harmless snake, first at a distance, then close up. She models for him the handling of a snake, demonstrating how harmless it can be. After a few exposures to this, he touches the snake and soon overcomes his fear and aversion to it. One can effectively teach golf, the operation of a complex machine, table manners, and other skills primarily by the modeling or imitative learning technique.

In a junior high school recently two boys were found to be drunk in the classroom. An investigation showed that one of the boys had recently watched a thirty-minute TV documentary on the making of whiskey and distilled spirits. On the basis of this single exposure, he built his own still and made his own private alcoholic stock, which he brought to school and shared with his companion.

The educational potential of TV and motion pictures is enormous. Studies in the U.S. show that by the age of three, children have become purposeful TV viewers, meaning that they have established patterns of favorite programs and viewing times. Various surveys have shown that most children watch TV from fourteen to forty-nine hours a week, depending on age and socio-economic level.

This means that most children spend more time in front of a TV set than in front of a teacher during a year’s time. In just the preschool years alone, some U.S. studies show that the average child spends more time watching TV than he spends in the classroom during four years of college. One study notes that the average child in the U.S. has witnessed over 10,000 murders on TV by the age of fourteen.

The notion that parents should or can control the TV-viewing habits of their children turns out to be virtually a myth in most households. The Surgeon General’s studies have found that in the overwhelming majority of households, the children, not adults, decide what programs they choose to see. Parents, in fact, rarely exercise control over the television habit of their children.

Bandura, the Stanford psychologist, has concluded that imitative learning plays a highly influential role in accelerating social changes, in inducing long-lasting attitude changes, and in strengthening or extinguishing emotional responsiveness to various stimuli. This conclusion suggests that people’s basic values, as well as behavior and possibly their consciences, can be manipulated and engineered.

The role of TV and movies in inciting violence, in teaching values, and in modeling a variety of life-styles, some of which may be antisocial and contributory to social breakdown, certainly bears investigation.

Considerable evidence suggests an increasing breakdown of the family as a social unit. The divorce rate in America, for example, is approaching nearly a million a year. In the past eight years the rate has nearly doubled.

With the breakdown in family life, some experts predict that in the near future parents will be forbidden by law to educate and train their children and that this will be turned over to specialized and bureaucratic organizations guided by the latest research and expertise.

A brief survey of the revolution that the production of commercial motion pictures has gone through during the last decade might be helpful.

A new freedom now exists worldwide and especially in the U.S. in which movie censorship is nearly nonexistent. Almost anything imaginable can be filmed and shown on the screen. Violence, extremes in sadism, explicit sex, revolutionary political philosophies, great varieties of antisocial behaviors, and sympathetic advocacy of the use of drugs are just a few of the taboos that have been repeatedly broken.

Most commercial motion pictures that get national distribution are later purchased for TV screening, where, with occasional editing, they have a cultural life of ten to twenty years, being first presented in prime time and then eventually in off-season late shows.

If one can assume, as research now suggests, that the theater and TV screen are to some extent teachers of values and social behavior in our society, it might be important to assess what kinds of values and behavior are being taught or modeled by the media. It is entirely possible that the fantasy creations of today’s movie theater may, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, become tomorrow’s social norms.

The motion picture theater may, in fact, be a more powerful and persuasive teacher of values and ethics on Saturday night than the Sunday School classroom is on Sunday morning.

What effect does it have on one’s seventeen-year-old daughter to visit weekly a motion picture theater with her boyfriend and see adultery or premarital affairs on wide screen, in color, to the accompaniment of soft music? Or what effect does it have on her younger brother to watch twenty-two hours of TV a week and be shown violence depicted as exciting, crooks presented as heroes, adultery presented as something amusing, and where there is a frequent blurring and confusion about moral and ethical issues and behavior?

One might argue that if his daughter and son are loved and well brought up and emotionally well balanced, they will not be affected by what they see modeled on the screen, regardless of how perverse or antisocial. However, we flatter ourselves, as Dr. Wertham has argued, “if we think that our social conditions, our family life, our education and our entertainment are so far above reproach that only the emotionally sick children can get into trouble. We like to assume that most children are ‘immune’ to such influences … but my work convinces me that no immunity exists. Harm is harm. A noxious agent is still a noxious agent. There may be defenses against a snowball, but there are none against an avalanche.”

In an attempt to analyze in depth the specific content, value, and themes modeled in our present-day cinema, the writer, with the help of four assistants, conducted a survey of every motion picture playing in a moderate-size American city during one week in the winter of 1971–72.

We attended downtown central city cinemas, suburban movie houses, and drive-in theaters. We would regard this as a fairly representative sample of movie fare found in most regions of the Western world.

We analyzed thirty-seven films, ranging from mild family comedies to “X”-rated films and suspense movies. Sixteen percent were “X”-rated, 24 percent “R”-rated, 46 percent “PG”-rated, and only 14 percent “G”-rated.

We found that the average film contained thirty-eight scenes or incidents of violence and sex, including nudity, illicit sex, physical aggression without weapons between humans, slaughter, and massacre.

The films appeared to fit into four general categories: (1) sex films that had a minimum of plot and a great deal of nudity and sexual interactions; (2) adventure movies that displayed a great deal of explicit violence and fast action, with some sex thrown in for titillation purposes; (3) contemporary films that focused on contemporary youth themes of antiwar, antiestablishment, generation gap, minority suppression, and personal alienation genre; and (4) miscellaneous films that were in the “comedy and light entertainment” category, with the primary focus being on entertainment in the pure sense.

Sixty-two percent of the films presented an essentially fatalistic viewpoint of life and human destiny, in which man was caught by forces that he could not really control or cope with and in which he had to endure his fate without much hope of resolving his difficulties or conflicts. This approached in some ways the existential view of man, though here it also suggested an additional impotency and ineffectualness. Twenty-two percent of the heroes and heroines were eventually killed, died, or in some way were destroyed.

Fifty-seven percent of the films presented dishonesty in a heroic light or as justifiable conduct in light of the hero’s circumstances (e.g., the policeman engaged in illegal or dishonest behavior in order to capture or kill the villain, but considering how bad the villain is, this is suggested as being “obviously justified”).

Thirty-eight percent of the films presented criminal activity as something that pays off or as being a successful and exciting pastime with no negative consequences. Only 31 percent of the films depicted criminal activity as nonrewarding or having negative consequences.

In 43 percent of the films the heroes were portrayed as law breakers or antisocial characters. Of those movies having heroines, 38 percent were similarly antisocial types.

In 59 percent of the films the heroes killed one or more individuals, while 21 percent of the heroines did similarly. About half of these killings were presented as being justifiable.

In 87 percent of the films the hero (whether antisocial or not) was portrayed appealingly and sympathetically as a person the audience might identify with.

When the heroes’ ultimate goals were analyzed, 49 percent were attempting to do something socially constructive, though sometimes illegally or by using violent means. Another 27 percent of the heroes were pursuing socially destructive goals or ends, such as pushing drugs, while 24 percent of the films presented heroes with neutral goals—that is, merely trying to survive.

In 60 percent of the films premarital and extramarital sexual relations were presented as normal and acceptable. Seventy percent of the heroes or male leads and 72 percent of the heroines were presented as being to some degree sexually promiscuous. Only one film suggested normal sexual relations between a man and a woman legally married to each other. In other words, the model of sex presented in American cinema is almost entirely illicit, with an almost total rejection of the notion that sex might occur between men and women married to each other.

In only 22 percent of the films were any of the principal figures seen engaged in what might be termed healthy and reasonably satisfying marriages. Another 27 percent of the films presented the main characters in pathological marital situations, and the remaining 51 percent of the films showed all of the key characters as unmarried or not essentially involved in marriage. In other words, models of healthy marriage and marital interaction are present in only a fairly small minority of films.

A good share of our modern cinema heroes are antiheroes who, for the most part, are unprincipled, unrestrained, lacking in impulse control, and unconcerned with the rights or sensitivities of others.

In faulting the violence to be found in the American cinema, the most telling argument against it is not its sheer volume, but that too little is taught or modeled of the real nature of violence and how to control it. Rarely is there shown the impact, the aftermath, or the follow-up of all those people so neatly killed or injured, as it might be in real life. We don’t see the grieving family of the father who was killed by the hero, or the man with the damaged spine, now unemployed and crippled for life by the bullet in the lower vertebra, or the adolescent girl who was raped but who in real life is likely to have many years of acute marital problems arising out of her terrifying experience.

Thus we see that the modern movie ethic equates courage with violence and the solution of problems with impulsive aggressive action. If the themes in the current cinema are harbingers of the future, we may indeed have some concerns for future generations.

Dr. Cline, professor of psychology and researcher at the University of Utah, writes and lectures widely in his field. In the Church he has served on the Sunday School general board. He lives in Valley View Fifth Ward, Valley View Stake.