May 4, 2003

Violent Music Lyrics Increase Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings, According to New Study

Even humorous violent songs increase hostile feelings

WASHINGTON - Songs with violent lyrics increase aggression related thoughts and emotions and this effect is directly related to the violence in the lyrics, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association (APA). The findings, appearing in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, contradicts popular notions of positive catharsis or venting effects of listening to angry, violent music on violent thoughts and feelings.

In a series of five experiments involving over 500 college students, researchers from Iowa State University and the Texas Department of Human Services examined the effects of seven violent songs by seven artists and eight nonviolent songs by seven artists. The students listened to the songs and were given various psychological tasks to measure aggressive thoughts and feelings. One such task involved participants classifying words that can have both aggressive and nonaggressive meanings, such as rock and stick.

To control for factors not related to the content of the lyrics, the violent and nonviolent songs were sung by the same artists and were in the same musical style in three of the experiments. In the two other experiments, the researchers tested the arousal properties of the songs to make sure the violent-lyric effects were not due to differences in arousal. Also, individual personality differences related to hostility were assessed and controlled. The study also included songs with humorous lyrics to see how humor interacted with violent song lyrics and aggressive thoughts.

Results of the five experiments show that violent songs led to more aggressive interpretations of ambiguously aggressive words, increased the relative speed with which people read aggressive vs. nonaggressive words, and increased the proportion of word fragments (such as h_t) that were filled in to make aggressive words (such as hit). The violent songs increased feelings of hostility without provocation or threat, according to the authors, and this effect was not the result of differences in musical style, specific performing artist or arousal properties of the songs. Even the humorous violent songs increased aggressive thoughts.

The violent-song increases in aggressive thoughts and feelings have implications for real world violence, according to lead researcher Craig A. Anderson, Ph.D. of Iowa State University. "Aggressive thoughts can influence perceptions of ongoing social interactions, coloring them with an aggressive tint. Such aggression-biased interpretations can, in turn, instigate a more aggressive response -verbal or physical - than would have been emitted in a nonbiased state, thus provoking an aggressive escalatory spiral of antisocial exchanges," said Dr. Anderson.

The study investigated precursors to aggression rather than aggressive behavior itself. More research is needed, say the authors, to identify the short-term and long-term effects of violent song lyrics. Repeated exposure to violent lyrics may contribute to the development of an aggressive personality and could indirectly create a more hostile social environment, although the authors say it is possible that the effects of violent songs may last only a fairly short time.

"One major conclusion from this and other research on violent entertainment media is that content matters," said Dr. Anderson. "This message is important for all consumers, but especially for parents of children and adolescents."

Article: "Exposure to Violent Media: The Effects of Songs With Violent Lyrics on Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings," Craig A. Anderson and Nicholas L. Carnagey, Iowa State University and Janie Eubanks, Texas Department of Human Services; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 84, No. 5.

Lead author Craig Anderson, Ph.D., can be reached at (515) 294-0283 or by Email.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.