In Brief

Violent song lyrics increase negative emotions and thoughts that can lead to aggression, according to a study published in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 84, No. 5).

The study challenges the ancient Greek "catharsis hypothesis" that claims that expressing aggressive emotion will later decrease aggressive behavior. Instead, researchers from Iowa State University and the Texas Department of Human Services found that aggressive music lyrics increase aggressive thoughts and feelings, which might perpetuate aggressive behavior and have long-term effects, such as influencing listeners' perceptions of society and contributing to the development of aggressive personalities.

"This [study] provides the first clean demonstration of violent lyric effects," says lead author Craig Anderson, PhD, of Iowa State University.

In five experiments, Anderson and his colleagues asked more than 500 college students to listen to such violent songs as "Shoot 'Em Up" by Cypress Hill and "Hit 'Em Hard" by Run DMC, and such nonviolent songs as "Finger Lickin' Good" by the Beastie Boys and "Love vs. Loneliness" by the Suicidal Tendencies. Researchers also included the lyrics of humorous violent and nonviolent songs like "A Boy Named Sue" by Johnny Cash and "Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh" by Allan Sherman.

After listening to the songs, the students performed various word-association tasks to test whether they linked more non-aggressive words with aggressive words or filled incomplete words with vowels to make aggressive words. They also reported their feelings of hostility as measured by the State Hostility Scale, ranking sentences based on their emotions after hearing the songs.

The results indicate a relationship between violent song lyrics and increased aggressive thoughts and feelings of hostility. Humorous violent songs also increased aggression levels, relative to humorous nonviolent songs, according to Anderson. The findings held even after the researchers controlled for the listeners' gender and personality differences, as well as their reactions to the different performing artists and musical styles.

While more research on effects of violent lyrics must be done, says Anderson, yet another type of entertainment media, when referring to violence, "now has been demonstrated to have some negative effects."