A new study published in the academic journal Psychology of Popular Media shows a strong connection between watching a lot of violent media, finding media violence humorous, and having dark personality traits. Importantly, the research predicts how this connection might lead to actual violence and aggressive behavior.
“We noticed there was a gap in the research literature concerning traits of people who find humor in entertainment media,” says Craig Anderson, a faculty member at Iowa State University and one of the authors of the paper. “An obvious place to start was to see whether dark personality traits predict who will find entertainment media humorous.”
To study this, Anderson and his colleagues conducted a pair of survey-based experiments that focused on seven dark personality traits. The first four traits, referred to as the ‘Dark Tetrad’ by psychologists, are as follows:
- Narcissism, which includes grandiosity, entitlement, and self-centeredness
- Machiavellianism, which includes cynicism and manipulative social tactics
- Psychopathy, which includes callousness, impulsivity, and antisocial behavior
- Sadism, or the tendency to find harming others pleasurable
The other three traits they explored are also associated with antisocial behavior. They are:
- Moral disengagement, or a tendency to “turn off” one’s moral compass to avoid the consequences of immoral behavior
- Spitefulness, or the tendency to harm oneself in order to harm other people
- Schadenfreude, which involves finding pleasure in another person’s misfortune or pain.
The researchers found that six out of the seven dark personality traits were associated with the tendency to find humor in violent entertainment media. Only narcissism appeared to be unrelated.
They also observed a desensitization-type effect, whereby the more exposure one had to media violence, the more likely they were to find humor in it and the more likely they were to exhibit moral disengagement (i.e., “turning off” their moral compass).
In other words, while certain personality types may be drawn to media violence more than others, mere exposure to violent media can have a desensitizing effect on all of us.
For someone who has noticed a tendency to find humor in violent media in themselves or a loved one, Anderson has the following advice:
“At this point in time, there is very little research linking finding humor in media violence to later real-world aggression and violence,” explains Anderson. “The state of the research literature does show that a fascination with weapons and violent incidents, and high exposure to media violence, does predict both mild and extreme acts of violence. But, that is not the same thing as finding humor in violent entertainment media.”
Having mentioned that, Anderson gives two critical pieces of information on the subject:
- Parents of children from age 5 to 21 should be concerned if those children find violence that they see in all types of media, including news reports of real-world violence, to be funny and not distressful.
- If that is the case, then that is a sign that the media habits of the family need to be altered and that the family needs to do a better job of teaching children prosocial family values rather than antisocial ones. Interestingly, superhero violence also is harmful to children’s development of appropriate social values and feelings of well-being.
Another point raised by Anderson is that there is other research showing that video games with prosocial themes can, over time, lead to improved socialization and emotional development and can decrease the likelihood of antisocial behavior.
“Please note that some supposedly prosocial games, especially games in which the ‘hero’ destroys the bad-person enemies, are actually harmful to players,” warns Anderson. “The main reason is because what those games actually teach is that physical violence is good and the first thing to try when faced with an interpersonal dispute.”
According to Anderson, truly prosocial games can teach people to devise nonviolent solutions to conflict, and can therefore result in improved interpersonal relationships.
A full interview with Craig Anderson discussing his research can be found here: Does finding media violence funny mean you have a dark personality?