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The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental HealthElliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over a hundred published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He's currently the director of the Transpersonal Psychology Program at Akamai University. He has also written a number of self-published books, including Numberama: Recreational Number Theory In The School System, Modern Religions: An Experiential Analysis And Exposé, and The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. Elliot enjoys playing the piano, tennis, and ballroom dancing, and can be contacted at ben496@prexar.com. See also: www.benjamin-philosopher.com.

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Killing Sprees
and Media Violence

A Primary Culprit in an
Integrated Perspective?

Elliot Benjamin

"Thirty seconds worth of glorification of a soap bar sells soap. Twenty-five minutes of glorification of violence sells violence."

It has been nearly two weeks since the Connecticut elementary school massacre. Words still fail me to describe the horror I have been feeling. Gun control has become a hot political issue the past two weeks, and I am certainly all for gun control. People are also talking about the dangers to our society of not giving adequate treatment to our growing epidemic of mental disturbance, and I am certainly all for improving and expanding our treatment of mentally disturbed individuals in the community, though in a humanistic treatment context [1]. There are undoubtedly many factors that led to this most recent tragedy, as there are undoubtedly many factors that have led to all the school shootings and other acts of deadly violence we have been witnessing. But I believe that a possible primary factor that should be taken very seriously, along with the primary factors of gun control and mental health issues, is media violence.

Media violence is currently included as one of the possible factors that may have led to the recent Connecticut massacre [2]:

The list of culprits include easy access to guns, a strained mental health system and the “culture of violence”—the entertainment industry's embrace of violence in movies, TV shows, and especially, video games.

The list of people concerned that video violence may be related to the tragedy of school shootings certainly makes for strange bedfellows, as it puts me in the same room as Wayne Lapierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, Senator Joe Lieberman, and Donald Trump (cf. [2]). I do not share the perspective of the National Rifle Association on their opposition to gun control, as I would like to see as much gun control as possible. But I do agree with anyone who cites violence in the media as a significant factor that may be involved in real world violence. Brad Bushman, professor of communications and psychology at Ohio State University and one of the leading experts on video game violence, recently published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology which found disturbing links between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior and hostile expectations (cf. [2]):

Violent video games are significantly associated with increased aggressive behavior, threats, and affect; increased physiological arousal, and decreased prosocial (helping) behavior...they decrease feelings and empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings.

And yet in our culture-at-large, violent video games have become incredibly popular (cf. [2]):

The vast majority of today's best-selling games are violent ones. Eight of the ten most popular games listed in G4TV's list of the top 100 are highly violent, including two from the simulated series “Call of Duty” and two games in the “Grand Theft Auto” series.

Media violence may generally be in the background in comparison with the major issues of gun control and mental health, but from my integrated perspective on the occurrence of killing sprees, it should be explored as a possible primary culprit. Therefore in this essay I would like to focus on media violence as a fundamental part of an integrated perspective on the occurrence of killing sprees, and in particular on school shootings.

During my recent transition from mathematics professor to psychologist, I worked in community mental health as a mental health worker for a little over 3 years, from 2007 to 2010. During this time I worked with children and teenagers, and developed my humanistic ideas about working with mentally disturbed people in the community (cf. [1]). Although my main job title was “behavioral specialist,” I felt that my primary mission was to establish an authentic caring bond of personal connection with the clients and families in my care, which is the basic framework of humanistic psychology as formulated by Carl Rogers in the 1960s [3]. I thus found myself in the dubious position of forcing myself to spend time with some of my young clients through watching them play their violent video games. I knew that I needed to reach them, and that it was important for them to have a sense of me being part of their world. It was quite the shock to my sensitive artistic system to see the indiscriminate killing that took place in these video games, and how nonchalantly my teenagers were engaged in this indiscriminate killing. I remember how the teenager I worked with who spent the most time playing these violent video games soon brought a gun into his school and threatened another student, and consequently he was removed from his home and sent to a juvenile facility.

It always disturbed me seeing how much my young clients enjoyed all the violence they got to “virtually” engage in during this time, as it seemed to me that it was moving them one step closer to the possibility of committing a violent crime in the real world, especially with the common lacks of effective parental guidance that many of them were experiencing at very vulnerable ages. I had the same feelings and concerns about all the violence on television and in the movies, but somehow the personalized active component of the violence in the video games seemed even worse to me. And then in 2010 I began teaching introductory psychology at a community college in Maine, and soon after that at a university in Maine. Consequently I learned there is much research that confirms my feelings and concerns about the connection of killing sprees and media violence (cf. [2]).

This research suggests that there may be a link between media violence, in particular violent video games, and real world violence. However, there is also research that suggests the opposite conclusion: which is that violent video games do not lead to increases in aggression and violence (cf.[4]). One argument that researchers have used to discount the connection between video game violence and real life violence can be seen from crime statistics which demonstrate that from 1996 to 2006, youth violence was declining while video game sales were increasing, and that in this same time period there has been no statistically significant increase in mass murders or school shootings (cf. [4]). Most of these studies, both the ones finding links between violent video games and real world violence—and the ones that do not find a link, are correlational, which means that there may or may not be a relationship but that no conclusion about causation can be reached. However, there are also some experimental studies that have formulated conclusions about violent video games possibly acting as a cause of violent behavior, but these studies—as well as many of the above mentioned correlational studies—have been criticized as having methodological weaknesses, such as not taking into account data that reflects the opposite conclusion that media violence is not connected to real world violence (cf. [4]).

The situation is indeed very confusing and difficult to decide what is actually going on, as there apparently are good arguments and research on both sides of the issue. However, one possible way of resolving the contradictory research results is to separate the statistical data which represent populations, from the individual accounts of deranged individuals who have committed horrible crimes and have spent an excessive amount of time playing violent video games. It may be the case that although most young people who play violent video games will not act out their simulated game violence in the real world, there are a relatively few number of deranged individuals who are exceptionally susceptible to these violent “virtual” influences and may very well eventually act out their violent games in the real world. This in fact is my own best guess of what is going on here. I also think that violent video games do have the kind of effects on aggression and hostility that have also been reported in a 2005 statement by the American Psychological Association [5], but whether they result in real world violence of the kind that we have been witnessing in the school massacres is a different question. To explore this question, I believe that it is relevant and appropriate to look at some narrative reports as well as some of the correlational and experimental research studies that have found various relationships of media violence to real world aggression. However, it may very well be the case that the effects of playing violent video games on individuals with serious mental disturbances is very different from the effects on most individuals, especially if there is also a lack of effective parental guidance, which is often the case in children with serious mental disturbances (cf. [1]).

What follows below are some of the highlights of the narrative, correlational, and experimental research findings, as well as related comments, statements, and news reports, that suggest there may be a relationship between media violence and real world violence [6]. I am purposely including the listings in an introductory psychology course textbook as a reference here (along with a Wikipedia reference) to illustrate that the research supporting the connection of media violence to real world violence is not by any means esoteric or scholarly research that relatively few people ever read about. On the contrary, much of this research is considered to be significant and mainstream enough to be included in a very popular introductory psychology textbook that is now in its 10th edition and used by many colleges and universities all over the country (cf. [6]). The various reports that I am including below, support the above summary statement of current researcher Brad Bushman on the connection of video game violence to aggression. Here are some of the dominant illustrations of a possible connection between media violence and real world violence, inclusive of narrative, correlational, and experimental research, and related comments, statements, and news reports.

  • The two teen assassins who killed 13 of their Columbine High School classmates repeatedly engaged in violent video games, including Natural Born Killers and Doom.

  • The judge who in 1993 tried two British 10-year-olds for their murder of a 2-year-old suspected that the pair had been influenced by “violent video films.”

  • In the United States and Canada, homicide rates doubled between 1957 and 1974, which is when television was introduced and spreading; and a near-doubling of homicide rates began soon after television was first introduced in South Africa in 1975.

  • In an experimental set-up in the 1990s and 2000s, when some viewers were randomly assigned to watch violence and others to watch entertaining nonviolence, it was found that observing violence resulted in people reacting more cruelly when irritated.

  • In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers found that the violence-viewing effect appears to stem from at least two factors: imitation and desensitization.

  • Researchers in the 1990s found that violent play increased sevenfold immediately after children watched Power Rangers episodes.

  • In the 1980s and 2000s, it was found that prolonged exposure to violence leads to people becoming indifferent to it when later viewing a brawl, whether on television or in real life.

  • In the 1990s, adult males who spent three evenings watching sexually violent movies became progressively less bothered by rapes and slashings, compared with those in a control group. They later expressed less sympathy for domestic violence victims, and they rated the victims' injuries as less severe.

  • In the 2000s, moviegoers were less likely to help an inured woman pick up her crutches if they had just watched a violent rather than a nonviolent movie.

  • A 2004 statement of the American Academy of Pediatricians said the following: "Media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed."

  • A researcher in 1987 said the following in regard to how watching violence fosters indifference: "An evil psychologist could hardly imagine a better way to make people indifferent to brutality than to expose them to a graded series of scenes, from fights to killings to the mutilations in slasher movies."

  • In 1993 U.S. senator Paul Simon made the following remark about “selling violence” to the Communitarian Network: "Thirty seconds worth of glorification of a soap bar sells soap. Twenty-five minutes of glorification of violence sells violence."

  • A disturbing comment was made by the perpetrator of the 2011 bombing of government buildings in Norway in which 8 people were killed, who then went on to a youth camp where he shot and killed 69 people, mostly teens, regarding how he was influenced by playing a violent video game: "I see MW2 (Modern Warfare 2) more as a part of my training-simulation than anything else."

  • As reported in 2004, teenagers in more than a dozen places appeared to mimic the destruction and loss of life in the shooter games they had so often played.

  • In 2002, two teenagers and a young man in his early 20s, after drinking beer and playing Grand Theft Auto III, reproduced in real life what they played on their violent video game as they went out on a real drive and ran down with their car a 38-year-old man on a bicycle, got out and stomped and punched him, and then returned home to play the game some more; the victim was a father of three and died six days later.

  • In a 2010 statement submitted for a U.S. Supreme Court case, the following statement was included: "The psychological processes underlying such effects are well understood and include: imitation, observational learning, priming of cognition, emotion, and behavioral scripts, physiological arousal, and emotional desensitization."

  • In a 2000 study it was found that university men who spent the most hours playing violent video games tended to be the most aggressive, as in having hit or attacked someone else.

  • People randomly assigned to play a game including bloody murders with groaning victims (rather than playing the nonviolent game Mist) became more hostile, and in a follow-up task were also more likely to blast noise at a fellow student.

  • In a 2009 study, people with extensive experience in playing violent video games displayed desensitization to violence, as shown by blunted brain responses, and were less likely to help an injured victim.

  • In a 2011 study, after playing a violent rather than a neutral or prosocial video game, people became more likely to express dehumanized perceptions of immigrant outgroups.

  • In a 2009 study, young adolescents who played a lot of violent video games saw the world as more hostile, and in comparison with non-gaming kids, they got into more arguments and fights and got worse grades.

  • In a 2004 study, a comparison of gamers and non-gamers who scored low in hostility found that 38% of the violent game players had been in fights compared to only 4% of the non-gamers.

Some researchers believe that due partly to its more active participation and rewarded violence, violent video games have even greater effects on aggressive behavior and cognition than do violent television and movies, which is consistent with my own beliefs. However, in spite of all the above research indicating strong concerns about the connection of media violence—and violent video games in particular—to real life violence, a 2011 Supreme Court decision overturned a California State law that banned violent video game sales to children. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the following: "What sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting the sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her?"

I believe that the above brief research descriptions and related comments, statements, and news reports about the effects of media violence on real world violence should be taken very seriously. I am in total agreement with Justice Breyer (see above), and I see our whole society steeped in the excitement and glorification of violence: on television, in the movies, and in our children's continuous engagement with violent video games. I was not at all surprised to learn that the deranged Connecticut school murderer spent hours every day playing violent video games, inclusive of “Call of Duty” (cf. [2]). But I also know that any real solution to the problem of media violence is extremely unrealistic to ever take place, as our violent media culture is at the core of our whole capitalistic marketplace, where the rich get richer, to the detriment of whomever and whatever it takes to enable them to get richer; thus I'm afraid media violence is here to stay. It is also a complicated legal issue to decide where one should draw the line on freedom of speech and how much the government should be involved in the affairs of people, and if it would be most effective to educate parents about the possible detrimental effects of allowing their children to play violent video games, without making laws prohibiting the sale of these games (cf. [4]).

Some of the possible “beneficial” effects of playing violent games given by researchers who have concluded that violent video games do not have any significant effect on real world violence are certainly interesting and should be explored further. These include a vehicle to safely express hostility in a “virtual” environment, keeping adolescents off the streets and out of danger for long periods of time while they are immersed in their video games, and enhancement of concentration and visual and manual dexterity skills (cf. [2], [4], [6]. [7]). It is indeed a strong argument—and one that needs to be explained, that youth violence has actually been decreasing while video game sales has been increasing (cf. [4]).

However, as I have indicated above, I believe that what is most critical here are the possible effects of excessively playing violent video games on individuals who are mentally disturbed to begin with. There does not appear to be much research along these lines, but one preliminary research study that examined this to some extent is reported in 2010 with the following brief conclusion (cf. [2]):

Previous research has shown us that personality traits like psychoticism and aggressiveness intensify the negative effects of violent video games.

In a recent series of knife violence incidents in Australia, police commissioner Andrew Scipione voiced his opinion about the inciting of real world violence from playing violent video games, illustrating my main concern about the detrimental effects on mentally disturbed individuals, in particular on vulnerable adolescents who have mental health problems [8].

How can it not affect you if you're a young adolescent growing up in an era when to be violent is almost praiseworthy, where you engage in virtual crime on a daily basis and many of these young people do for hours and hours on end...You got rewarded for killing people, raping women, stealing money from prostitutes, driving cars and crashing and killing people...That's not going to affect the vast majority but it's only got to affect one or two and what have you got? You've got some potentially really disturbed young person out there who's got access for weapons like knives or is good with his fist, can go out there and almost live that life now in the streets of modern Australia.

Media violence surrounds us so completely in our U.S. society that we are like fish in water, not knowing that there is a different kind of life outside of the water. A few months ago I went to hear ex-military peace activist Paul Chappell speak in Maine about his ideas for “peaceful revolution.” I felt inspired by what I heard, though it also sounded virtually impossible to me that Chappell's ideas could ever happen. But as I ponder the horrendous killing sprees in schools that we have been witnessing over the years, Chappell's ideas come back to me—for he touches the idealistic dreamer that is still alive in me. Chappell has an unswerving optimistic perspective that human beings are not naturally violent, as he says [9]: "Our society's obsession with media violence does not show that human beings are naturally violent. Instead, it demonstrates that our society is ill."

This “illness” that Chappell refers to in our society is described briefly and impactfully in a way that captures all its horror and absurdity, as quoted by Chappell in a passage from Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman's book On Killing [10]:

At the same time that our society represses killing, a new obsession with the depiction of violence and brutal death and dismemberment of humans has flourished. The public appetite for violence in movies, particularly in splatter movies such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the cult status of “heroes” like Jason and Freddy; the popularity of bands with names like Megadeath and Guns N' Roses; and skyrocketing murder and violent crime rates—all these are symptoms of a bizarre, pathological dichotomy of simultaneous repression and obsession with violence.

In conclusion, I propose a multi-layered integrated perspective to explore the increase of killing sprees in recent years, utilizing in particular the highly relevant factors of gun control and mental health, and the possible detrimental effects of media violence—and in particular the possible real-world violence effects on young people who have mental disturbances and spend an excessive amount of time playing violent video games.

Notes

[1] See Elliot Benjamin (2011). Humanistic Psychology and the Mental Health Worker. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 51(1), pp. 82-111.

[2]See the following websites:

[3] See Carl Rogers (1961). On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[4] See the following websites:

[5] See the following websites:

[6] See the following website: "Video Game Controversies" , en.wikipedia.org, and David Myers (2013). Psychology (10th Ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.

[7] See the following website: "Violent video games don’t always make us aggressive", www.thaindian.com

[8] See the following website: "Violent video games incite kids to crime, says Scipione", www.dailytelegraph.com.au

[9] See Paul K. Chappell (2012). Peaceful Revolution: How We Can Create the Future Needed for Humanity's Survival. Westport, CT: Easton Studio Press.

[10] See Dave Grossman (1995). On Killing. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.




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