Rewarding and pleasurable


Where ‘moral panic’ is invoked to deter criticism of some aspect of the existing state of affairs, deeply apologetic attitudes can often be found lurking.

Behind the critical pose — reproachful of popular risk perceptions, derisive of the quackery and hysteria promoted by commercial TV, talk radio and tabloid press — lies a Panglossianism based on special-group interests or career ambition.

Three of the figures quoted in a previous post — Steven Pinker, Christopher J. Ferguson and Robert Corn-Revere — lent their credentials as amici curiae on the side of the Entertainment Merchants Association during the US Supreme Court case which decided the fate of a Californian law restricting sale of violent video games to minors.

Ferguson’s generally complacent, uncritical attitude towards the providers of media entertainment goods is evident throughout his many publications. Most attack the supposed ‘exaggerations’ of psychologists and pediatricians who use media-effects theory and social-learning theory to suggest that watching TV or playing video games may lead to behaviour modification.

This includes taking the shallowest industry PR at face value.

In an article that considers whether depiction of violence or sex in TV advertisements ‘may produce deleterious effects on adult and child viewers’, Ferguson and his co-authors offer the following:

A theoretical framework for understanding the effectiveness of television advertised [sic] is worth discussion. This paper endorses a model of understanding advertising and marketing in which their influence is more informative than behavior changing per se. In other words, advertising’s power is not in making people buy things they do not already have an inclination to buy, but rather in  directing people toward  specific brands. The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines marketing as

‘‘Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large’’ (AMA, 2007).

For example, a person is unlikely to buy cola unless they have tasted it or something similar in the past and enjoyed it. Advertising makes that cola enjoying person more inclined to choose a brand they identify with such as Coke or Pepsi, and eschew lesser known, potentially cheaper brands. Advertising, then, does not create massive behavior change, or shape people’s core personality or beliefs. It does nudge people in the direction of particular product brands the result of which can be windfall profits for those brands (see Kotler & Keller, 2009). Even relatively new products must appeal largely to existing consumer needs or wants.

Elsewhere he has sought to absolve media images of extremely thin women of their hypothesized causal role, via the internalization of impossible ideals and promotion of body dissatisfaction, in the etiology of eating disorders. Instead he has pointed the finger at sexual selection and between-peer female competition for mates: ‘body dissatisfaction is conceived as an often functional response to a woman’s perceived bodily shortcomings.’

Ferguson also has used evolution of the Pleistocene brain in the ancestral environment, etc. to explain the popularity of hyper-violent video games.

This leads him, like Pinker, to pronounce on the violent proclivities of people living before (or without) the domestication of plants and animals, and to sneer at the lily-livered weaklings who have renounced their ancestral birthright:

Much of the discussion of aggression in the social sciences began with an assumption that aggression is an inherently bad thing, both for the individual as well as for society as large… However, aggressiveness may also have positive benefits and indeed be evolutionarily adaptive, particularly in moderate amounts. Moderate aggressiveness may aid us in defending ourselves and our family, standing up for our beliefs, seeking high-status positions in society, developing leadership, excelling in sports and many careers, enduring hardships, etc. These are behaviors that increase social status and reproductive success. Indeed, some scholars have recognized that aggressiveness, particularly when allowed to be defined broadly, may have more positive qualities than negative…

The observation that aggression is an evolutionary adaptation which provides a selective advantage to those individuals who possess a moderate level of the trait is at odds with much of the lingo and dogma of social science across the latter 20th century. Historically it had been assumed that aggression and violence were learned behaviors, shaped largely by environmental influences including family and peers, but also media effects. Increasingly, evidence has demonstrated that this tabula rasa (i.e. blank slate) view of aggression has been mistaken and that there are strong genetic roots to aggressive and violent behaviour…

Humans, perhaps like many other creatures, find violent acts to be intrinsically rewarding and pleasurable. There are exceptions to this, of course (and perhaps those exceptions go on to become social scientists wedded to tabula rasa views of aggression), however there is little argument that violent media, and violent video games are overwhelmingly popular.

With this, the mocking of anti-violence thinkers as moral-panicking girlie men, we have something a little worse than mere business advocacy or industry shilling. Ferguson is helping, advertently or not, to encourage a contemporary shift in social norms. In the new equilibrium, a taste for extreme violence (and its enjoyment for entertainment purposes) isn’t to be met (as it was in the old) with ostracism, sanction, shunning or disapproval. It isn’t maladaptive: we are ‘natural born killers.’

Increasingly, individuals with a preference for violence are to be tolerated and lauded.

It’s unclear whether this shift in norms is an accident or a project. Perhaps, as the economist James T. Hamilton has suggested, the oversupply of media violence is a ‘blind’ aggregate effect of individual firms acting singly in pursuit of their own ends. Or maybe there is coordinated collective action under way, with some people acting jointly in pursuit of definite political goals (deliberately fostering a remaking of preferences to support greater tolerance for violence).

If this sounds implausible or absurd, we should consider the motives behind what Australian historian Marilyn Lake recently described as the ‘relentless militarisation of Australian history’, with federal and state governments ‘actively fostering’ pro-war attitudes. As Lake describes, this effort includes a ‘mass education program’ including the ‘systematic distribution’ of curriculum materials to all primary and secondary school students.


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4 Responses to “Rewarding and pleasurable”

  1. Go long on nonsense! Higher learning from the office tower « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] it has always been necessary for academics to ‘pay the piper’ (several of these, as mentioned previously, are standard Whiggish retorts, used habitually by those committed to a Panglossian […]

  2. Learning to see like Maya: brutalizing the audience « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] perpetrating lethal violence or enjoying it for entertainment purposes does not lead to ostracism or sanction, but is positively rewarded (c.f. Bigelow and Boal’s […]

  3. Muddying the waters « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] A&M associate professor Christopher Ferguson, whose work on video games I’ve discussed here and here, was apparently one of the ‘independent researchers’ to attend Biden’s […]

  4. Doubt as a free good; or, ‘Product defence’ as an externality « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] comes ‘irrespective of the “truth” of the violence/media debates’, says a vociferous pro-games participant in the latter. Not action but legitimation is called […]

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