The temptation to steal or cheat is sometimes great —
especially when the risk of being caught is low. A new study suggests that
denying people the opportunity to engage in these taboo behaviours may lead
them to seek out violent video games as a way of managing their frustration.
The study, led by researcher Brad Bushman of Ohio State
University, is published in Psychological
Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
How the study was
Bushman and his colleagues want to understand what attracts
people to violent media. In a previous study, they found that people who
believe violent games are cathartic, offering emotional release, are more
attracted to violent video games when they're angry.
In the new study, Bushman, doctoral student Jodi Whitaker,
also of Ohio State, and colleagues André Melzer and Georges Steffgen from the
University of Luxembourg expanded on this research, exploring whether people
might view violent video games as a cathartic outlet when their attempts to
cheat or steal are thwarted.
The researchers gave 120 male college students a history
multiple choice exam. The test contained questions of varying difficulty,
including four questions that even two history professors couldn't answer.
Students were told they would be rewarded with delicious food for answering
Some of the students received an envelope that contained an
already completed exam with "100%" marked at the top but no name
written on it. The researcher acknowledged the "mistake" and handed
those students another envelope. For some, the second envelope contained a
blank exam and their opportunity to cheat was taken away from them. For others,
the second envelope contained another exam with a 100% score and they were
still able to cheat. A third group was never given an opportunity to cheat,
receiving only the blank test.
After finishing the exam, the researchers asked the students
if they would like to complete another study about video games while their
tests were being graded. They read about four violent and four non-violent
games and rated how much they wanted to play each game.
What the study showed
The results revealed that students given the completed exam
got more of the difficult questions right than would be expected by chance,
suggesting that the temptation to cheat was real.
Most importantly, the students who had their opportunity to
cheat taken away were more likely to choose violent video games compared to the
A second experiment showed similar results: Students who had
their chance to steal quarters denied were also more attracted to violent video
games, which could be attributed to an increase in frustration.
This research provides evidence that extends
frustration-aggression theory, which posits that frustration is generated when
a desirable goal — such as obtaining a reward like food — is blocked. The
findings reported here suggest the frustration can also result when people are
prevented from engaging in undesirable activity, in this case, violating a
Notably, frustration didn't affect attraction to non-violent
Unlike non-violent games, "violent games offer a chance
to engage in aggressive behaviour in the virtual world, which is attractive
when one experiences frustration," says Bushman.
Ultimately, these results help us to understand why people
want to play violent video games.
According to Bushman, these findings are especially
important in light of evidence that playing violent video games can lead to
increased angry feelings and aggressive behaviours. Thus, while people may turn
to violent video games as a way to manage their feelings of frustration, the
video games may actually enhance negative emotions.