Category Archives: psychology

Violent Games Can Hinder Development of Empathy in Children, says Study – IndustryGamers

Violent Games Can Hinder Development of Empathy in Children, says Study – IndustryGamers.

The truth is, children shouldn’t be receiving their lessons in empathy from video games. Video games are not a source for that, and any game that tries to directly teach that lesson will not be received well by the intended audience. Putting the blame on games is just a sad and seemingly endless exercise. Read the rest of this entry

You are what you read/watch/etc.

For the past several days I have been engaging in a conversation with a friend of mine (over Facebook…) about women in science fiction/fantasy/comic books that has served to spark my interest in why we, the readers, choose the stories and characters we do. Her longtime fixation has and always will be Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its titular character. Why? There was something inherently relatable about that character I describe as narcissistic, selfish, and written in a boring manner (she never fails and is always right). My friend is not alone in finding Buffy Summers such an enjoyable fiction character. The reasons others have might mirror hers or be something totally out of left field. But it got me thinking about my favorite characters and stories. What do these preferences say about me?

My favorite stories are rarely about specific characters but rather communities in which everyone plays a nigh equally important role as the next person. Some stories have a certain spiritual aspect about them, but the spirituality is something other than the mainstream faiths. It usually discusses the duality of mind and soul (and the balance between following our logical brains or our gut instincts) and the transcendent nature of who we are. Special note on Caprica: Our entire beings are more than what simply exists on this plane of existence in these skins. But I also have a special affinity for Spider-Man stories, mainly because he is completely relatable – especially after the One Day More storyline from a couple years back. I guess it says a lot about me to appreciate a loveable loser who is constantly down on his luck but is able to move forward because he sees that there is more to life than what he is personally getting out of it.

Zeta Gundam, my favorite anime, seems to combine all these requirements. Kamille Bidan, the eventual pilot of the Zeta Gundam, is a down on his luck mech-building nerd who watches both of his parents die right before his eyes. However, he grows into a strong man thanks to the surrogate family he becomes part of in a rebellious military organization. He, not unlike many others, is able to connect with people on a spiritual level - and that gives him strength. Those who have died still live on in spirit, and in the scene pictured they grant him their strength to overcome the villain.

My friend and I are academics, though. Her studies in English are cross-compatible with my own in psychology, especially since both fields involve interpretation and looking for inner truths. We are both trained to be self aware. Other people do not take the time to think about it, nor would they necessarily know where to begin. As such, I can only look at mass American culture and what it might mean on a broad scale.

Which brings me to another thing I have been thinking about quite a bit lately – Lady Gaga. To be honest, I appreciate her music. It does not earn its own playlist on my MP3 player, but it finds a place on certain playlists. For me the reason why is simple: She or her producers have successfully captured the elusive earworm and planted some of its eggs directly into her tracks. That and sometimes I like music that does not require much thought.

Simple aesthetic is what people tend to fall back on when discussing music. “I like it because it sounds good,” is a completely acceptable answer, although it does not get deep enough for understanding. Asking why generally yields little, and even someone who studies music would be hard pressed to really describe what makes it sound good aside from mentioning musical terminology. “Why does it sound good to you?” I want to know what people are personally getting out of the music. Aesthetics are makeup. They add to the overall presentation, but that does not explain what differentiates certain songs from their sound alike contemporaries.

It gets easier to understand when looking back at the top ten singles for the past few years and noticing certain trends in song content and performers. Yes, I know it is a no-brainer to mention the overwhelming trend of sexuality in music. The easy, and valid, assumption is that people like sex. That does not solve the mystery for me. If people did not like sex, procreation would predominantly be practiced by intellectuals instead of the reality of the situation. My thought is that people enjoy the freedom of sexuality advertised by these artists. Despite our being a considerably free country, we are still very much sexually repressed. Discussion of sex is taboo, and even certain acts are instilled in us as taboo in the privacy of our own bedrooms.

That helps to explain some of the interest in Lady Gaga’s music. I think the rest is how weird and therefore mysterious she is.

If all promotional images of Lady Gaga were like this one, would she still have the same appeal? Look up "vintage lady gaga" on YouTube and find a performance of hers from NYU before she was famous. She was quite talented, but you have to ask if she would be remotely as famous if she had decided not to pursue sexual wish fulfillment music and an accompanying more-free-than-you image.

But what about everyone else? What about Taylor Swift? Considering her single, I would say that girls who think they are a good girls find it completely relatable – and guys want to think that they will always eventually end up with the good girl. What about a good majority of rap music? Essentially they are popular due to male power fantasies. Guys are fulfilling their desires to be objects in pure control – hence the common “bitches and money” theme.

When it comes to movies, we find a number of romantic comedies in existence. Like I have previously mentioned, romcoms exist and persist because they imbue in some viewers the notion that real and true love does exist. (The other side of it is to set the mood for sex, which is why so many people put up with these generally poor films.) Then we look at the action films, which are usually more male power fantasies.

What it tells me is that people in my culture generally feel powerless and alone, with men generally more concerned about power and women more concerned about companionship. Definitely did not take a psychologist to point out these things, but I thought examples would be nice. I have also only scratched the surface. Television, video game (“Why do you spend more time playing Warcraft than you do experiencing your own life?”), and literary trends (“Why are you reading Harry Potter for the seventh time?”, “What do you get out of Twilight?”) were not touched. That would require watching Glee and Lost, which sounds painful (like sugar-rotting-teeth painful) on one end and time consuming on the other. I would also probably have to watch more reality television, but my guess is that reality simply is not real enough for people anymore. Probably due to a lack of truly living by the audience.

In the end, though, this is a fun exercise for those of us who like to think about the meaning behind our own choices. Our entertainment choices generally do say something about us. What do your choices say about you? How do you relate to the characters? What is being fulfilled?

The Copycat Effect

I bet the author, Loren Coleman, would say that the most responsible thing the news could do is advertise his book. I don’t plan on commenting on every single book that I read, but we will call this two in a row for now. I recently read through Loren Coleman’s The Copycat Effect. The book left me unfulfilled. I picked it up some time ago thinking that it would be a discussion of the information age and the proliferation of individuals copying what they see in the media. Instead the book was largely a collection of historic suicides, mass murders, and murder-suicides and similar ones that occurred shortly thereafter (or annually, in some cases). What the book lacked was actual discussion of a trigger or specific psychological precedents in individuals who display this copycat effect. The author instead points a finger, and the blame, at the media itself for showing and discussing these horrors.

The author’s conclusion contains a list of 7 suggestions to the media in order to reduce the copycat effect. I will reproduce the suggestions below, in what may be the closest I come to a severe copyright violation, and provide my own (non-expert/unprofessional) commentary.

1.) The media must be more aware of the power of their words. Using language like "successful" sniper attacks, suicides, and bridge jumpers, and "failed" murder-suicides, for example, clearly suggest to viewers and readers that someone should keep trying again until they "succeed". We may wish to "succeed" in relationships, sports, and jobs, but we do not want rampage or serial killers, architects of murder-suicide, and suicide bombers to make further attempts after "failing". Words are important. Even the use of suicide or rampage in headlines, news alerts, and breaking bulletins should be reconsidered.

In other words, this means the media should censor itself. Speaking of failures and successes in suicides and such is actually proper terminology. We discussed that at length in my grad level classes. The word the author uses throughout the book is “completed” in order to describe a successful attempt. What that suggests is that attempts that don’t get finished are therefore incomplete, and we live in a culture that speaks poorly of people who leave things unfinished. I’m not sure if that’s good wording. Of course, one has to ask what else there is to say? And what words other than rampage or serial killers? The new words would mean the same thing, and what you would create then is a rotating list of words to describe the same thing. The ultimate solution, sadly, is to leave the news unreported.

2.) The media must drop their clichéd stories about the "nice boy next door" or the "lone nut". The copycat violent individual is neither mysterious nor healthy, or usually an overachiever. They are often a fatal combination of despondency, depression, and mental illness. School shooters are suicidal youth that slipped through the cracks, but it is a complex issue, nevertheless. People are not simple. The formulaic stories are too often too simplistic.

I waited through the entire book for this, characteristics of copycat individuals. Instead of suggesting an intervention, though, the author says that the media should take responsibility. What about the schools? What about the parents? It’s ironic that it’s stated that people are not simple and the stories shouldn’t be presented as simple but the solution itself oversimplifies.

3.) The media must cease its graphic and sensationalized wall-to-wall commentary and coverage of violent acts and the details of the actual methods and places where they occur. Photographs of murder victims, tapes of people jumping off bridges, and live shots of things like car chases ending in deadly crashes, for example, merely glamorize those deaths, and create models for others–down to the method, the place, the timing, and the type of individual involved. Even fictional entertainment, such as the screening of The Deer Hunter, provides vivid copycatting stimuli for vulnerable, unstable, angry, and depressed individuals.

There’s a case to be made for these vulnerable individuals’ latching onto anything in this situation. If not the sensationalized and graphic, then the implied yet disturbing. This is another suggestion for censorship. I can’t get behind that. It’s another situation in which I suggest interventions over censorship.

4.) The media should show more details about the grief of the survivors and victims (without glorifying the death), highlight the alternatives to the violent acts, and mention the relevant background traits that may have brought this event to this deathly end. They should also avoid setting up the incident as a logical or reasonable way to solve a problem.

I can’t disagree with this. Detailing the grief of survivors and victims is a great way to bring light to the situation without dwelling on the methodology, but highlighting alternatives doesn’t make enough sense to me. The world is full of alternatives. The problem may be that the individual sees the horrid act as the last resort, ignoring all other suggestions. I can’t stress this enough, but maybe we should be publicizing interventions along with those relevant background traits.

5.) The media must avoid ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural stereotypes in portraying the victims or the perpetrators. Why set up situations that like-minded individuals (e.g., neo-Nazis) can use as a road map for future rampages against similar victims?

Chances are that like-minded individuals such as neo-Nazis already have in mind who they want to hurt. Ethnic, racial, religious and cultural information might be helpful information, especially in terms of studying what has happened and why. This then turns into another case of censoring the news. That’s not helpful.

6.) The media should never publish a report on suicide or murder-suicide without adding the protective factors, such as the contact information for hotlines, help lines, soft lines, and other available community resources, including e-mail addresses, websites, and phone numbers. To run a story on suicide or a gangland murder without thinking about the damage the story can do is simply not responsible. It’s like giving a child a loaded gun. The media should try to balance such stories with some concern and consideration for those who may use it to imitate the act described.

I agree that protective factors should be provided, but it’s not the responsibility of the news to provide it. I say it would be the goodwill of the news to provide it. As for comparing the information provided by the news to giving a child a loaded gun, that’s disgustingly extreme. You know what’s more like giving a child a loaded gun? Giving a child a loaded gun! Hasn’t anyone ever read a story about a child committing an act of violence or self-harm and then asked, “Hey, how did that kid get the weapon(s) in the first place?”

7.) And finally, the media should reflect more on their role in creating our increasingly perceived violent society. Honest reporting on the positive nature of being alive in the twenty-first century may actually decrease the negative outcomes of the copycat effect, and create a wave of self-awareness that this life is rather good after all. Most of our lives are mundane, safe, and uneventful. This is something that an alien watching television news from outer space, as they say, would never know. The media should "get real" and try to use their influence and the copycat effect to spread a little peace rather than mayhem.

As it stands, the book merely makes the case for the copycat effect, but it’s not a scientifically proven theory. Given that information, it hasn’t been tested. How do we know that the copycat effect can lead to positive behavior? Sounds like an idea for a follow-up book, but I have a feeling that won’t be written. (Which leads one to wonder if the Mr. Coleman is hypocritically cashing in on the sensationalization of death and murder himself.) An idea on a whim like that makes for a poor suggestion, although I do like the idea of reporting on more positive news stories.

This is an ad for a documentary I have yet to see, but I have to draw attention to something that disturbs me. I bet you that some group out there would suggest that the shirt is to blame and are working on getting it banned or pulled from production.

Obviously, I don’t like blaming the media for people’s ills. It will likely contribute in various ways, no doubt, but it’s hardly the source or the place to implement the solution. And let me be clear, censorship is not the solution. Education and awareness make for better solutions, but they’re often ignored because they’re far from simple.

There was a time when educational system included more mindful subjects like philosophy, or we could call it critical thinking. If more individuals were brought up with a better understanding of how to interpret the media, there would be fewer problems with it. If our educational system also included classes on being more inclusive and understanding of people, even better. If we could ultimately find a way to help foster more benevolent feelings and provide individuals with solid social support structures, we’d be many steps closer to utopia. I realize fully that the last one is a stretch and a nigh impossibility, but one can dream. After all, we provide individuals of autism with lessons about the importance of empathy and reinforce it for years. Why not for individuals on the more normative spectrum?

Loren Coleman’s book is ultimately successful in arguing for the prevalence of the copycat effect in American (and Japanese) society, but the fault of the book is that the individuals reading it already agree. The book’s lack of discussion on triggers and precedents makes the whole thing come across weak, and at times it literally reads like a list of unfortunate incidents. The inclusion of a list of suggestions by a man whose field of study doesn’t even involve the effects of the media (he’s got a Master’s in Social Work but he’s primarily, I kid you not, a cryptozoologist) is completely understood and good natured but also of little merit. However, just as I was easily able to pick at his suggestions, I expect my responses will be just as easily dissected and dismissed. The book, much like this entry, may be best regarded as the ice breaker for a larger discussion about the role the media plays in our lives and the responsibilities the individuals on both sides of the transmissions.

On being fed an emptiness

An interesting subject was brought up on the blog The Last Psychiatrist the other day. It starts innocently with an international reader’s response to the author’s entry about lamictal, a mood stabilizer. Essentially, what the reader has come to understand about America is that we are a ridiculously well off country that lives in excess but somehow still needs drugs in order to stabilize issues that may not even be there. And, to a degree, the reader was valid. However, the blog’s author, the titular Last Psychiatrist, spun his response in an interesting direction. America is a country of mercantilists rather than merely capitalists, because Americans want what they’re told that they want. It’s not about having things but rather the idea of having things. Shoes are nice, but Nike shoes say more. A car is nice, but a Lexus says something about you.

There's a certain appreciable paradigm shift in this image. Are we trying to obscure our reactions to an otherwise stressful world, or are we so ashamed of who we are that we obscure ourselves from...an otherwise stressful world? I don’t believe that the proper word is mercantilism, though. I’m trying to make that work, but it doesn’t work in my mind. The closest word I can find is materialism despite the fact that the pursuits of the people aren’t necessarily in objects in and of themselves but a greater idea beyond the physical entity. Again, it’s not just having a car that matters but rather the specific type of car. Capitalism might have started off a theory that pushed toward materialism, but now we sell people ideas.

The media is fueled by the belief that there’s more out there than the material. When you watch commercials, you’re not watching objects for sale but the ideas behind them, the lifestyles they support, and a special metaphysical weight that must be inherent in them. Dr. Dre’s Dr. Pepper commercial doesn’t sell you a soft drink. It sells you Dre’s special party drink. Hedon Penitentiary’s acne cleanser ads aren’t selling acne protection. They’re selling you the high end acne protection that renders zits invisible on television! (Note: In reality, they use makeup to cover it rather than merely cleaning the star’s face.)

But it’s not just present in commercials for store products. America sells much more than that. As The Last Psychiatrist points out, America sells the idea of happiness, or at the very least the idea Gimme gimme more? that none of us are living our lives the right way. If you’re not happy and pleasant all the time, you’re not properly happy. Take some drugs and you’ll be fine. Wait, are you too energetic and focused on achieving completion of work assignments? Then you must be manic, so take these drugs and you’ll be fine. But our culture isn’t intending to sell the drugs. It seems more focused on selling the insecurity. There’s always something wrong. There’s always something else you should do, buy, or think. There’s a baseline that you are most certainly missing – you and you alone.

This insecurity is what sells romantic comedies. Many are an over-idealized spectacle of self-sacrifice or a man’s desire to change entirely for a woman. There is a romanticism prevalent in many of these films that is certainly attainable but lacking in individual expression of love. It’s unfortunate that I report that there are woman out there who use such films as blueprints for the foundation of what they expect the perfect romance to be if someone truly loves them. It becomes disconcerting and frustrating when these expectations are not met by an otherwise acceptable partner.

I’ve also seen these idealized romances breed a total disregard in viewers, too. Instead of believing in the fairytale romance, someone will dismiss the idea of true love as fictional because of how it is displayed in fiction. Instead of searching for the most ideal partner, the viewers may instead opt for more convenient romances or situations where basic needs are met. Another reason not to prey on insecurity is because it breeds more insecurity.

Romcoms aren’t the only perpetrators of selling insecurity. What about the alpha males in action films? What about the wise ass jerk with a heart of gold in comedies? (Note: There are many crossovers here with the romcom.) Hell, even the softer scifi out there suggests that someday our flaws will be fixable thanks to a McGuffin – and it’s usually not the MacGuffin itself that ends up being wrong but someone’s abuse of it instead. These all suggest that there’s something that we’re lacking but exist as templates for a better life. There are things we can get to make our lives better. Memorize these one-liners to be more likeable and/or macho. Follow these steps for the ideal romance.

The inherent problem is that popular fiction presents an exaggerated reality, either too good or horrible to be true. You don’t get reality as it is when you turn on the television or go to the movies. Reality isn’t fun because the message would be that things can be good or bad depending on how you want to look at it and how much responsibility you are willing to take. And why should I want to take responsibility when I can just buy some drugs or a party drink? Why should I look into my nutritional habits as well as personal routines (like how often I touch all over my face) when I can buy the protection of the stars? Why look for a romantic match when I can expect us all to latch to the same ideal of romance? The greatest insecurity on which the media preys is the notion that we are each incapable of taking care of, taking responsibility for, and deciding anything for ourselves.

The benefits of action-style video games

I’ve long been a believer in the role of video games as a tool rather than mere accessory for escape. The purpose of games is obviously the latter, but that doesn’t exclude the former. Just like television and movies, there are unintended consequences that are both positive and negative. While there is a somewhat valid fear of negative stimuli resulting in negative behavior, we often ignore that all of the information recognized by our senses is processed through the brain and can feed or exercise it.

No, Mom, this isn't just a series of senseless killings. I'm very obviously improving my spacial awareness, my hand eye coordination, and decreasing my chances of cognitive decline. Oh, and they're terrorist, so I'm being patriotic as well. Roger Dooley at Neuromarketing has an interesting article up about the positive benefits of video games. When people think of the positives of games, they usually default to Tetris or similar puzzle games, if not the more contemporary games on the Wii. Very rarely do they consider anything else in a positive light, least of all action-style games. A study from a year or two ago revealed that first-person action games can lead to improved visual acuity. One can be made more aware of his surroundings by playing a little bit of Team Fortress every night. How about that?

The part in the article that really intrigues me is the fact that Dooley reports that the regular engagement provided by video games is enough to reduce cognitive decline. Other sorts of brain stimulation are appropriate for the task of keeping a brain spry, but the gaming format is more likely to keep people coming back for more.

What pleases me the most about all of this is that the scientific community is unraveling that video games are a tool that can be used to positively affect the brain. Stimulation and visual acuity are surely just the start, but I am certain that full acceptance will come if the experiments with PTSD and games result positively. Once games show that they can heal as well as hone, greater import will be granted to games research and the role of games in culture will be expanded just a tiny bit more. That’s more than enough for me.