Janzssa: Systematic Desensitisation and the Propensity for Violence

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Systematic Desensitisation and
the Propensity for Violence

Maurice Vaughan

Counsellor University of New England
I want to draw your attention to the possibility that young men are being systematically desensitised to violence. If young men are being desensitised to violence then I would suggest the safety of women is threatened and this will result in an increase in violent crimes against women. There has been an ongoing debate for many years now in relation to the effect of violence on television and how this might translate to more violence in our communities. This debate has been compounded in the last few years by the introduction of increasingly sophisticated video games that are moving closer and closer to virtual reality killing. Here is an example of the type of circular argument we see played out in the media.

Computer games are unlikely to incite violence in young people, a four year study has concluded. Nor do they appear to be addictive. Commissioned by the State and Federal ministers with censorship responsibilities, Computer Games and Australians Today investigated the link between violence in computer games and aggressive behaviour by players. It is clear from the findings of this project that computer game play is often a social activity, the researchers said. (Taken from The Sun Herald 9/1/2000.)

The work of Dave Grossman (1996) a professor of Military Science in the USA presents statistics in relation to figures for serious assaults and murder. The figures are not good of course and demonstrate some alarming trends. For example the rate of serious assault has increased from 250 per 100.000 to 440 per 100.000 for the period 1977 to 1993. (USA) In Australia during the same period the number of serious assaults increased from 30 to approximately 80 per 100.000. (Grossman 1996.) Grossman argues that the media plays an essential role in the systematic desensitisation of the young male population. This systematic desensitisation is a significant factor he claims in the rise of serious assaults indicated by the data.

S. Marshall (cited Grossman pg 29) had studied the phenomena of trained soldiers often being unwilling to fire at other men during the heat of combat.

He more than any other individual prior to him, understood the thousands of soldiers who did not fire at the enemy, and he concluded that the 'average and healthy individual .has such an inner and usually unrealised resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will of his own volition not take life if it is possible to turn away from the responsibility'.

There has been a myth promulgated that killing in war is the norm. “The media in our modern information society have done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing and have therefore become part of society's unspoken conspiracy of deception that glorifies killing and war.” (Grossman 1996 p. 34.) In the same way that a conspiracy of silence operated in society in relation to rape and sexual abuse there has been a conspiracy of silence in relation to the horrific impact of those experiencing the trauma of war.

The truth about killing is very different claims Grossman.

There can be no doubt that the resistance to killing one's fellow man is there and that it exists as a result of a powerful combination of instinctive, rational, environmental, hereditary, cultural and social factors. It is there, it is strong, and it gives us cause to believe that there may be hope for mankind after all." (ibid pg 39.)

What evidence exists to substantiate the claim that traditionally in combat situations most men were extremely unwilling to kill others. F A Lord (cited Grossman pg 24) points to the phenomena of soldiers reluctance to discharge their firearms during battle, despite their being ordered to do so as well as being programmed to do so by endless repetitive training. After the battle of Gettysburg during the American civil war recovery of muskets from the battlefield indicated that there was an 80-85% non firing rate amongst the soldiers engaged in battle. Similar observations were made during World War One and World War Two. This of course was a serious concern to military trainers and by the time of the Vietnam War the US army was claiming 90-95% firing rates for its combat troops. How did they manage this?

The answer was systematic desensitisation that was able to override the innate reluctance to kill a fellow human being. What the trainers discovered was that the more realistic the training, for example shooting at life like dummies, providing the noise etc correlated to higher fire rates in battle. Using the principles of Pavlovian classical conditioning and Skinnerian operant conditioning overrode the innate reluctance to kill. Coupled with this was the need to dehumanise the enemy or manufacture contempt for their inherent humanity. (A process familiar to those working with perpetrators of rape.)

The evidence then is very clear that the military has been very successful in training particularly young men to be killers. It gets more difficult to train men in this way as they get older. A reminder that the average age of American servicemen fighting in Vietnam was 19 years is a scary thought.

When considering the evidence from The Sun Herald article above that 94% of 12-17 year olds are playing computer games and that many of these games are often virtual reality simulated combat, consider this. "There is a direct relationship between realism and degree of violence enabling, and the most realistic of these are games in which great bloody chunks fly off as you fire at the enemy." Combine this with watching violence on television and at the movies the implications of systematic desensitisation are potentially far reaching. What the researchers observed is that there appeared to be no significant acting out of the violence they were observing. Where the danger does occur is when these normal kids come under prolonged psychological pressure and are pushed to the edge of their emotional capabilities. The systematic desensitisation to killing can then turn these so called normal kids into high school killers. What the military is very well aware of when training men to kill is the absolute need for discipline. There are many constraints placed on the use of firearms and there are extensive measures of control to ensure maximum safety. There are no such safety nets in place for young people who are exposed to extreme and repetitive media violence.

When young persons are playing these games there are in effect no controls or safeguards. Recently there was a news item about Australian soldiers who had been sent home from East Timor for misconduct. Some of the charges were using a weapon in an aggressive or inappropriate manner. Another was for a careless discharge of a firearm. The sanctions for improper use of the firearm are significant.

The schoolyard massacres in the US are a frightening phenomena. Grossman points to the fact that these kids are performing like highly trained killers. Their access to firearms, violent movies and virtual reality war games have played a part in their ability to carry out systematic killings. The Columbine School massacre where two 17 year old youths killed 13 young people is grim testimony to the fact that we are creating a greater propensity to turn young men into highly trained killers. They made some video footage before they went on their rampage. On one of the tapes there was a section where the two boys were actively cultivating their rage. "More rage. More rage. Keep building it on." The need for such hype is well known to military trainers.

Grossman calls for a "Resensitization" of America to the horrors of violence. He points to the scientific evidence linking an increase in violence to media exposure. He says that the powerful tobacco interests in the US were able to fool the American public for many decades and in the same way we are being fooled now by powerful media lobby groups who do not want us to know the truth. He points to the work of Professor Elizabeth Newson who claimed that exposing children to damaging violent material was a form of child abuse. Dr Brandon Canterwall summarised many aspects of the debate linking violence in the media to violent crime in his 1993 publication, The Public Interest. "Canterwall points out that aggressive impulses like most human phenomena are distributed along a bell shaped curve, and the significant effect of any change will occur at the margins. He notes:

It is an intrinsic effect of such 'bell curve' distribution that small changes in the average imply minor changes at the extremes. Thus if exposure to television causes 8% of the population to shift from below average aggression to above average aggression, it follows that the homicide rate will double.

The evidence indicates that if, hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the US, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults. Violent crime would be half what it is.

The evidence is quite simply overwhelming. The American Psychological Association's commission on violence and youth concluded in 1993 that "there is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behaviour. (Grossman pg 329)

Finally let me bring the reality of killing a little closer with a remarkable story I have been reading lately. Ned Kelly. A Short Life by Ian Jones 1996. Kelly had been pursuing one of the Victorian police officers who had been intent on his capture dead or alive. This story was recounted after Kelly's capture. Kelly had just shot and mortally wounded the officer, a man by the name of Kennedy.

The sergeant never moved from the spot where he fell, but complained of the pain from the bullet wound. He endeavoured to turn the conversation in the direction of his domestic affairs, his home, his wife and family, and very frequently of the little one he had recently buried in the Mansfield cemetery [11 month old John Thomas Kennedy had died on 1 April 1877], to whom he seemed very much attached, evidently knowing he would soon be by his side. I could not help being very much touched at his pitiable condition, and after a little I said, 'Well Kennedy I am sorry that I shotyou. Here take my gun and shoot me.' Kennedy replied, 'No, I forgive you,and may God forgive you too.


Grossman David (1996) On Killing The Psychological Costs of Learning To Kill In War and Society. Backpay Books. Little Brown & Co Boston. New York.

Jones Ian (1999) Ned Kelly A Short Life Lothian Books.

Time Magazine Dec 20 1999.

The author may be contacted:

Maurice Vaughan

University of New England

Counselling & Careers Service.

Armidale 2351 NSW

Phone 6773 2897

Fax 6773 3763

Journal of the Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association

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