Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 44, Issue 5, pp 1092–1108 | Cite as

Emotional and Physiological Desensitization to Real-Life and Movie Violence

  • Sylvie MrugEmail author
  • Anjana Madan
  • Edwin W. CookIII
  • Rex A. Wright
Empirical Research


Youth are exposed to large amounts of violence in real life and media, which may lead to desensitization. Given evidence of curvilinear associations between exposure to violence and emotional distress, we examined linear and curvilinear associations of exposure to real-life and movie violence with PTSD symptoms, empathy, and physiological arousal, as well emotional and physiological reactivity to movie violence. College students (N = 209; mean age = 18.74) reported on their exposure to real-life and televised violence, PTSD symptoms, and empathy. Then, students were randomly assigned to view a series of violent or nonviolent high-action movie scenes, providing ratings of emotional distress after each clip. Blood pressure was measured at rest and during video viewing. Results showed that with increasing exposure to real-life violence, youth reported more PTSD symptoms and greater identification with fictional characters. Cognitive and emotional empathy increased from low to medium levels of exposure to violence, but declined at higher levels. For males, exposure to higher levels of real-life violence was associated with diminishing (vs. increasing) emotional distress when viewing violent videos. Exposure to televised violence was generally unrelated to emotional functioning. However, those with medium levels of exposure to TV/movie violence experienced lower elevations of blood pressure when viewing violent videos compared to those with low exposure, and those with higher levels of exposure evidenced rapid increase in blood pressure that quickly declined over time. The results point to diminished empathy and reduced emotional reactivity to violence as key aspects of desensitization to real-life violence, and more limited evidence of physiological desensitization to movie violence among those exposed to high levels of televised violence.


Violence Desensitization Emotion Physiological 



This research was partly supported by Grant R01MH098348 from the National Institutes of Health to the first author.

Author contributions

S.M. designed the study, performed statistical analyses, and drafted the manuscript; A.M. designed the study, coordinated data collection, and contributed to manuscript revisions; E.C. contributed to study design, data analyses and manuscript revisions; R.W. provided guidance on study design, use of equipment for data collection, and manuscript revisions. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


  1. Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., et al. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151–173.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory o development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469–480.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Bartholow, B. D., Bushman, B. J., & Sestir, M. A. (2006). Chronic violent video game exposure and desensitization to violence: Behavioral and event-related brain potential data. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 532–539.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beck, J. G., Grant, D. M., Clapp, J. D., & Palyo, S. A. (2009). Understanding the interpersonal impact of trauma: Contributions of PTSD and depression. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23(4), 443–450.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Bennett, C. M., & Baird, A. A. (2006). Anatomical changes in the emerging adult brain: A voxel-based morphometry study. Human Brain Mapping, 27, 766–777.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Boxer, P., Huesmann, L. R., Bushman, B. J., O’Brien, M. O., & Moceri, D. (2009). The role of violent media preferences in cumulative developmental risk for violence and general aggression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38, 417–428.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Bradshaw, C. P., Rodgers, C. R. R., Ghandour, L. A., & Garbarino, J. (2009). Social-cognitive mediators of the association between community violence exposure and aggressive behavior. School Psychology Quarterly, 24, 199–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brady, S. S. (2006). Lifetime community violence exposure and health risk behavior among young adults in college. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39, 610–613.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Briere, J. (1996). Trauma symptom checklist for children: Professional manual. Florida: Psychological Assessment Resources Inc.Google Scholar
  10. Browne, K. D., & Hamilton-Giachritsis, C. (2005). The influence of violent media on children and adolescents: A public-health approach. The Lancet, 365, 702–710.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Buckley, T. C., & Kaloupek, D. G. (2001). A meta-analytic examination of basal cardiovascular activity in posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 63, 585–594.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Bushman, B., & Anderson, C. (2009). Comfortably numb: Desensitizing effects of violent media on helping others. Psychological Science, 20(3), 273–277.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Bushman, B. J., & Huesmann, L. R. (2001). Effects of televised violence on aggression. In D. Singer & J. Singer (Eds.), Handbook of children and the media (pp. 223–254). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  14. Calvert, S. L., Murray, K. J., & Conger, E. E. (2004). Heroic DVD portrayals: What US and Taiwanese adolescents admire and understand. Applied Developmental Psychology, 25, 669–716.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Carnagey, N. L., Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2007). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 489–496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Center for Research Excellence. (2009). Video consumer mapping survey. Retrieved from Center for Research Excellence web site:
  17. Cisler, J. M., Begle, A. M., Amstadter, A. B., Resnick, H. S., Danielson, C. K., Saunders, B. E., et al. (2012). Exposure to interpersonal violence and risk for PTSD, depression, delinquency, and binge drinking among adolescents: Data from the NSA-R. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25, 33–40.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Clark, R., Benkert, R. A., & Flack, J. M. (2006). Violence exposure and optimism predict task-induced changes in blood pressure and pulse rate in a normotensive sample of inner-city black youth. Psychosomatic Medicine, 68, 73–79.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Cline, V. B., Croft, R. G., & Courrier, S. (1973). Desensitization of children to television violence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(3), 360–365.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Cooley-Quille, M., Boyd, R. C., Frantz, E., & Walsh, J. (2001). Emotional and behavioral impact of exposure to community violence in inner-city adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 30(2), 199–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Cooley-Quille, M., & Lorion, R. (1999). Adolescents’ exposure to community violence: Sleep and psychophysiological functioning. Journal of Community Psychology, 27, 367–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Coughlin, S. S. (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder and cardiovascular disease. The Open Cardiovascular Medicine Journal, 5, 164–170.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalogue of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.Google Scholar
  24. Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. de Kloet, E. R., Joels, M., & Holsboer, F. (2005). Stress and the brain: From adaptation to disease. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6, 463–475.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Drabman, R. S., & Thomas, M. H. (1976). Does watching violence on television cause apathy? Pediatrics, 57, 329–331.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Englehardt, C. R., Bartholow, B. D., Kerr, G. T., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). This is your brain on violent video games: Neural desensitization to violence predicts increased aggression following violent video game exposure. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1033–1036.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Fanti, K. A., & Avraamides, M. N. (2011). Desensitization to media violence. In M. Paludi (Ed.), The psychology of teen violence and victimization (pp. 121–133). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.Google Scholar
  29. Fanti, K. A., Vanman, E., Henrich, C. C., & Avraamides, M. N. (2009). Desensitization to media violence over a short period of time. Aggressive Behavior, 35, 179–187.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Farrell, A. D., & Bruce, S. E. (1997). Impact of exposure to community violence on violent behavior and emotional distress among urban adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 26, 2–14.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Ferguson, C. J., & Kilburn, J. (2009). The public health risks of media violence: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Pediatrics, 154, 759–763.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Finkelhor, D., Turner, H. A., Shattuck, A., & Hamby, S. L. (2013). Violence, crime, and abuse exposure in a national sample of children and youth: An update. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(7), 614–621.Google Scholar
  33. Fischer, P., Greitemeyer, T., Kastenmuller, A., Vogrincic, C., & Sauer, A. (2011). The effects of risk-glorifying media exposure on risk-positive cognitions, emotions, and behaviors: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 367–390.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Florsheim, P., Tolan, P. H., & Gorman-Smith, D. (1996). Family processes and risk for externalizing behavior problems among African American and Hispanic boys. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 1222–1230.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Fowler, P. J., Tompsett, C. J., Braciszewski, J. M., Jacques-Tiura, A. J., & Baltes, B. B. (2009). Community violence: A meta-analysis on the effect of exposure and mental health outcomes of children and adolescents. Development and Psychopathology, 21, 227–259.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Funk, J. B., Baldacci, H. B., Pasold, T., & Baumgardner, J. (2004). Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: Is there desensitization? Journal of Adolescence, 27(1), 23–29.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Funk, J. B., Buchman, D. D., Jenks, J., & Bechtold, H. (2003). Playing violent video games, desensitization, and moral evaluation in children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 413–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Garmezy, N. (1991). Resilience in children’s adaptation to negative life events and stressed environments. Pediatric Annals, 20, 463–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Gaylord-Harden, N. K., Cunningham, J. A., & Zelencik, B. (2011). Effects of exposure to community violence on internalizing symptoms: Does desensitization to violence occur in African American youth? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 39, 711–719.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Guerra, N. G., Huesmann, L. R., & Spindler, A. (2003). Community violence exposure, social cognition, and aggression among urban elementary school children. Child Development, 74, 1561–1576.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Hinchey, F. S., & Gavelek, J. R. (1982). Empathic responding in children of battered mothers. Child Abuse and Neglect, 6(4), 395–401.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Hoffner, C., & Buchanan, M. (2005). Young adults’ wishful identification with television characters: The role of perceived similarity and character attributes. Media Psychology, 7, 325–351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Huesmann, L. R. (2007). The impact of electronic media violence: Scientific theory and research. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41, S6–S13.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Huesmann, L. R., Lagerspetz, K., & Eron, L. D. (1984). Intervenin variables in the TV violence-aggression relation: Evidence from two countries. Developmental Psychology, 20, 746–775.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Huesmann, L. R., Moise, J., Podolski, C. P., & Eron, L. D. (2003). Longitudinal relations between childhood exposure to media violence and adult aggression and violence: 1977–1992. Developmental Psychology, 39(2), 201–221.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Kliewer, W. (2006). Violence exposure and cortisol responses in urban youth. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 13(2), 109–120.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Krahé, B., & Möller, I. (2010). Longitudinal effects of media violence on aggression and empathy among German adolescents. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31(5), 401–409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Krahé, B., Möller, I., Huesmann, L. R., Kirwil, L., Felber, J., & Berger, A. (2011). Desensitization to media violence: links with habitual media violence exposure, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 630–646.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Krenichyn, K., Saegert, S., & Evans, G. W. (2001). Parents as moderators of psychological and physiological correlates of inner-city children’s exposure to violence. Applied Developmental Psychology, 22, 581–602.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Leary, K., & Dickerson, M. (1985). Levels of arousal in high- and low-frequency gamblers. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 23(6), 635–640.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. Linz, D., Donnerstein, E., & Adams, S. M. (1989). Physiological desensitization and judgments about female victims of violence. Human Communication Research, 15, 509–522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Linz, D., Donnerstein, E., & Penrod, S. (1984). The effects of multiple exposures to filmed violence against women. Journal of Communication, 34, 130–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Linz, D. G., Donnerstein, E., & Penrod, S. (1988). Effects of long-term exposure to violent and sexually degrading depictions of women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(5), 758–768.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Lupien, S. J., McEwen, B. S., Gunnar, M. R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on brain, behaviour and cognition. Nature Review Neuroscience, 10, 434–445.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Main, M., & George, C. (1985). Responses of abused and disadvantaged toddlers to distress in agemates: A study in the day care setting. Developmental Psychology, 21(3), 407–412.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Matthews, V. P., Kronenberger, W. G., Want, Y., Lurito, J. T., Lowe, M. J., & Dunn, D. W. (2005). Media violence exposure and frontal lobe activation measure by functional magnetic resonance imaging in aggressive and nonaggressive adolescents. Journal of Computer Assisted Tomography, 29, 287–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. McCart, M. R., Smith, D. W., Saunders, B. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H., & Ruggerio, K. J. (2007). Do urban adolescents become desensitized to community violence? Data from a national survey. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 77(3), 434–442.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. McCloskey, L. A., & Lichter, E. L. (2003). The contribution of marital violence to adolescent aggression across different relationships. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(4), 390–412.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Meichenbaum, D. (2007). Stress inoculation training: A preventative and treatment approach. In P. M. Lehrer, R. L. Woolfolk, & W. S. Sime (Eds.), Principles and practice of stress management (pp. 497–518). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  60. Molitor, F., & Hirsch, K. W. (1994). Children’s toleration of real-life aggression after exposure to media violence: A replication of the Drabman and Thomas studies. Child Study Journal, 24, 191–207.Google Scholar
  61. Mrug, S., Loosier, P. S., & Windle, M. (2008). Violence exposure across multiple contexts: Individual and joint effects on adjustment. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78, 70–84.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. Mullin, C. R., & Linz, D. (1995). Desensitization and resensitization to violence against women: Effects of exposure to sexually violent films on judgments of domestic violence victims. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(3), 449–459.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Murali, R., & Chen, E. (2005). Exposure to violence and cardiovascular and neuroendocrine measures in adolescents. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 30(2), 155–163.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  64. Ng-Mak, D. S., Salzinger, S., Feldman, R. S., & Stueve, C. A. (2004). Pathologic adaptation to community violence among inner-city youth. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 74, 196–208.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  65. Nietlisbach, G., Maercker, A., Rössler, W., & Haker, H. (2010). Are empathic abilities impaired in posttraumatic stress disorder? Psychological Reports, 106, 832–844.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Pole, N. (2007). The psychophysiology of posttraumatic stress disorder: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 725–746.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  67. Ruggiero, K. J., Del Ben, K., Scotti, J. R., & Rabalais, A. E. (2003). Psychometric properties of the PTSD Checklist—Civilian version. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 16, 495–502.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Rutter, M. (1993). Resilience: Some conceptual considerations. Journal of Adolescent Health, 14, 626–631.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  69. Saltzman, K. M., Holden, G. W., & Holahan, C. J. (2005). The psychobiology of children exposed to marital violence. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 34(1), 129–139.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  70. Sams, D. P., & Truscott, S. D. (2004). Empathy, exposure to community violence and use of violence among urban, at risk adolescents. Child and Youth Care Forum, 33, 33–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Savage, J., & Yancey, C. (2008). The effects of media violence exposure on criminal aggression: A meta-analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35, 772–791.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Schwartz, D., & Proctor, L. J. (2000). Community violence exposure and children’s social adjustment in the school peer group: The mediating roles of emotion regulation and social cognition. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(4), 670–683.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  73. Sharpe, L. (2004). Patterns of autonomic arousal in imaginal situations of winning and losing in problem gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 20(1), 95–104.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  74. Sherwood, A., Dolan, C. A., & Light, K. C. (1990). Hemodynamics of blood pressure responses during active and passive coping. Psychophysiology, 27, 656–668.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  75. Singer, M. I., Flannery, D. J., Guo, S., Miller, D., & Leibbrandt, S. (2004). Exposure to violence, parental monitoring, and television viewing as contributors to children’s psychological trauma. Journal of Community Psychology, 32(5), 489–504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Smith, A. (2006). Cognitive empathy and emotional empathy in human behavior and evolution. The Psychological Record, 56, 3–21.Google Scholar
  77. Smith, S. L., Wilson, B. J., Kunkel, D., Linz, D., Potter, W. J., Colvin, C. M., et al. (1998). National television violence study (Vol. 3). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  78. Su, W., Mrug, S., & Windle, M. (2010). Social cognitive and emotional mediators link violence exposure and parental nurturance to adolescent aggression. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 39, 814–824.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  79. Thomas, M. H., Horton, R. W., Lippincott, E. C., & Drabman, R. S. (1977). Desensitization to portrayals of real-life aggression as a function of television violence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 450–458.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  80. Van der Molen, J. H. W., & Bushman, B. J. (2008). Children’s direct fright and worry reactions to violence in fiction and news television programs. Journal of Pediatrics, 153, 420–424.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  81. Weathers, F. W., Litz, B. T., Huska, J. A., & Keane, T. M. (1994). The PTSD Checklist—Civilian version (PCL-C). Boston, MA: National Center for PTSD.Google Scholar
  82. Wilson, D., Kliewer, W., Teasley, N., Plybon, L., & Sica, D. (2002). Violence exposure, catecholamine excretion, and blood pressure non-dipping status in African-American male versus female adolescents. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64, 906–915.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  83. Wright, J. C., Huston, A. C., Reitz, A. L., & Piemyat, S. (1994). Young children’s perceptions of television reality: Determinants and developmental differences. Developmental Psychology, 30(2), 229–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Wright, R. A., Shim, J. J., Hogan, B. K., Duncan, J., & Thomas, C. (2012). Interactional influence of fatigue and task difficulty on cardiovascular response: Demonstrations involving an aerobic exercise challenge. Psychophysiology, 49, 1049–1058.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  85. Zatzick, D., Rivara, F., Jurkovich, G., Hoge, C. W., Wang, J., Fan, M., et al. (2010). Multi-site investigation of traumatic brain injuries, posttraumatic stress disorder, and self-reported health and cognitive impairments. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67, 1291–1300.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sylvie Mrug
    • 1
    Email author
  • Anjana Madan
    • 1
    • 3
  • Edwin W. CookIII
    • 1
  • Rex A. Wright
    • 2
  1. 1.University of Alabama at BirminghamBirminghamUSA
  2. 2.University of North TexasDentonUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of MiamiCoral GablesUSA

Personalised recommendations