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Desensitization to aggression is a much discussed issue. It refers to a psychological state where the impact of aggression fails to rub off on the mind, when we are “not affected” when we watch scenes of violence. While this could be great news for a good night’s sleep, experiencing it repeatedly could slowly begin to erode empathy out of our systems when such a situation occurs in real life.

How does desensitization occur?

Aggression or violence is generally associated with :

  1. Physical pain in the victim
  2. Guilt in the aggressor
  3. Sympathy for the victim
  4. A wish to avoid being exposed to such a situation again

Now, let’s look at how each of these associations change in the context of watching aggression in the media or in sports.

–The pain we know is all fake in the movies. Blood is associated with ketchup and grimacing actors with best actor awards maybe. It could also be that we consider pain in sports to be limited to a certain threshold. All sports have safety rules and chances for grievous injury are slim.

–Guilt and sympathy are almost completely stricken off. Why must an actor feel guilt? After all it is scripted and the ‘victim’ is not in real pain. We may feel sympathetic towards characters we identify with in movies. However, we surely don’t feel sympathy for that scheming evil villain of course. Ditto for sports. Both players knew they were to be hit…it’s part of the game!

–Avoidance tendencies also are largely ruled out. Movies, cartoon shows and sports are meant to entertain. Violent scenes are accompanied by special effects, pumping music and eye-catching stunts. Boxing and wrestling matches or WWE are games after all. There’s excitement and an anticipation of winning, which we sure wouldn’t wish to avoid.

These factors in my opinion have a significant role to play in the silent decrease in our empathy levels for such situations in real life.

Repeated Exposure:The Last Nail in The Coffin

They say ‘practice makes perfect’. Every scene we watch leads to a repetition of the cycle described above. What ensues is transference of the desensitized reaction to real life situations simply because the mind is now subconsciously ‘used to’ it.

This could be the reason why a crowd gathers around two people in conflict, not to intervene but to watch the fight. I’m sure we have all come across people saying excitedly, “hey look look, a fight!”

How does it impact children ? 

The younger we are when this process sets in, the deeper it could percolate. This is cause for concern for parents, as children simply adore ‘action’ and are exposed to aggression even in cartoon shows, which are perhaps further away from reality than movies, lessening levels of sympathy for the victim even more and raising the chances that they engage in such acts themselves.

What can be done?

Mere insight into desensitization could serve as intervention for adults. Awareness about it can make us think the next time we watch a “masala” action scene or see a crowd watching a squabble in enjoyment.

With regard to children, a little more active approach is needed : 

  • Talk about it: ask children how they felt upon watching such scenes repeatedly.
  • Distinguish it from reality: Help children actively differentiate between ‘Jerry’ hitting ‘Tom’ with a hammer for example, and a similar situation in real life. The younger the child, the more care we need to take in checking their perceptions of seemingly basic concepts. It is important for them to understand for example, that it surely doesn’t end at a funny looking reddish bump on Tom’s head that subsides upon being pressed.
  • Remind children about “entertainment value”: It is important to tell children that such scenes are often exaggerated merely for entertainment value. Our much loved Rajnikanth and Sunny Deol can fight ten armed men single handedly and never seem to get truly hurt by the hardest of blows. They must understand that this is not possible in reality. Such things may seem too basic at first glance, however, a young mind may not know boundaries and prevention is better than cure.

Post contributed by: Malini Krishnan (Psychologist, Inner Space, 2010-Present)


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