Mean TV Makes You Meaner

A new social psychology study asserts watching meanness and aggression on TV rubs off on viewers. If true, we are in for something.


Meanness appears to rub off on viewers

By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

Researchers have long known that watching violence on TV or in movies ratchets up aggression, but what about watching people being mean to one another? Could watching Mean Girls make you as aggressive as watching Kill Bill?

A new study suggests the answer is yes.

Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne and colleagues asked 53 British college-aged women to watch one of three video clips, featuring either physical aggression (a knife fight from Kill Bill), relational aggression (a montage from Mean Girls) or no aggression (a séance scene from the horror movie What Lies Beneath). They then filled out a brief questionnaire and were allowed to leave the room. Right outside was another researcher who asked if they would like to participate in a study involving reaction times.

Once the women agreed to take part, the researcher behaved rudely, telling them to hurry. When they showed uneasiness, she said, "Great! This is really going to screw things up!"

The researcher left the room, and the subjects took two tests that are commonly used to test aggression.

Subjects who viewed the Kill Bill and the Mean Girls clips reacted in similarly aggressive ways. Prompted to subject the rude researcher to a sharp noise by pushing a button, they turned up the noise louder than a control group. They also gave lower scores than the control group on an evaluation form that supposedly was going to be used to decide whether the researcher should be hired.

Coyne says the findings suggest parents should pay more attention to relational aggression and perhaps even push to make it part of movie and TV ratings. "Everyone’s concerned about violence in the media, as they should be, but we’re missing out on lots of violence out there," she says. "We need to look at these other types of aggression out there because we know that they’re having an effect on aggression."

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Coyne, who is now studying reality TV shows, says they are loaded with instances of relational aggression. She doesn’t recommend eliminating conflict from drama shows, but she worries young children in particular are viewing a lot of relational aggression. It’s "almost always portrayed as justified, almost always portrayed as rewarded," she says.

The study is in November’s Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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