Television and Violent Criminal Behavior: Beyond the Bobo Doll

Article excerpt

This study builds on the research concerning television viewing and aggression by extending the external validity, or generalizability, of the dependent variable. We assess the relationship between self-reported television viewing at 8, 10, and 12 years of age and the subsequent commission of a violent criminal act. This study is based on interview data from 48 males incarcerated for violent crimes and 45 nonincarcerated, nonviolent males matched on age, race, and neighborhood of residence during adolescence. Results show that the extent of a respondent's reported television viewing was not, in and of itself, predictive of violent criminal acts. Instead, it was the interaction of heavy doses of television viewing and exposure to either maternal or paternal abuse that related to violent crime. These findings support the efforts of some recent scholars in their attempts to understand why television has a negative effect on only some viewers. The results are discussed in light of the cognitive formulations of neoassociationism, encoding specificity, and the double-dose effect.

Over the past 20 years, numerous scholars have attempted to determine what, if any, relationship exists between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior. Most of these studies find at least a modest relationship between media exposure and aggression (Andison, 1977). Two key questions, however, remain unanswered. First, do the effects of media violence exposure extend to actual violent, criminal behavior, or are they limited to minor aggressions and acts of juvenile delinquency? Second, what factors, if any, enhance or moderate the links between media violence and aggressive or violent behavior? We attempt to answer each of these questions, beginning our analysis with a brief (and by no means exhaustive) review of the research concerning media effects on aggression and crime. (Comprehensive reviews of this literature can be found in Andison, 1977; Comstock, Chaffee, Katzman, McCombs, & Roberts, 1978; Geen, 1976; Liebert & Baron, 1972; Liebert, Neale, & Davison, 1973; Murray & Kippax, 1979).


The relationship between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior has been demonstrated in a series of laboratory and field experiments and quasiexperiments. These studies have found that the media-aggression link is enhanced if (a) the media aggression is presented as being justified (e.g., Berkowitz, 1965); (b) salient cues are present during the retrieval period (e.g., Berkowitz & Frodi, 1977); (c) the respondents are predisposed to aggressive behavior (e.g., Friedrich & Stein, 1973; Parke, Berkowitz, Leyens, West, & Sebastian, 1977); and (d) the respondent identifies with the violent character (e.g., Huesmann, Eron, Klein, Brice, & Fischer, 1983; Turner & Berkowitz, 1972). These findings apply not only to young children (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963; Liebert & Baron, 1972; Singer & Singer, 1980) but also to adolescents (Belson, 1978; Hartman, 1969) and to college students (Berkowitz & Rawlings, 1963; Berkowitz & Geen, 1966). Media effects are found on aggressive behaviors, including hitting a Bobo doll (e.g., Bandura et al., 1963), shocking confederates (e.g., Berkowitz & Geen, 1966), verbal and physical aggression (e.g., Eron & Huesmann, 1980; Feshbach & Singer, 1971), and minor acts of juvenile delinquency (e.g., Belson, 1978; Mclntyre, Teevan, & Hartnagel, 1972). Finally, controlling for factors such as socioeconomic status, intelligence, race, and mother's education does not eliminate the relationship between media exposure and aggression and in some cases strengthens it (e.g., Mclntyre et al., 1972).

While most of the findings from these studies point in the same direction (i.e., exposure to media violence is related to increased aggression), a number of researchers have questioned the practical significance of these findings. …