GOOD SOCIOLOGY….BAD SOCIOLOGY….“Violent Shows Inspire Violence, Study Says.” That’s the headline, anyway, but as Matt Yglesias points out, that’s only one possible explanation:

Under one interpretation, identifying with the characters on violent television shows causes children to grow up into aggressive adults. This seems to be the interpretation they want you to believe. But isn’t it a lot more likely that aggressive kinds just identify with violent TV characters and then grow up to be aggressive adults.

It’s maddening that studies like this don’t take this possibility into account. Actually, let me rephrase that: it would be maddening if the study didn’t take this into account. But it did. Here’s the press release from the American Psychological Association:

Might these results simply be an indication that more aggressive children like to watch violent TV shows? “It is more plausible that exposure to TV violence increases aggression than that aggression increases TV-violence viewing,” said Dr. Huesmann. “For both boys and girls, habitual early exposure to TV violence is predictive of more aggression by them later in life independent of their own initial childhood aggression. Also, the study suggests that being aggressive in early childhood has no effect on increasing males’ exposure to media violence as adults and only a small effect for females.”

Now, I’ve still got some problems here, chief among them the small sample size of 329. Once you start breaking that down by “the child’s initial aggression levels, their intellectual capabilities, their social status as measured by their parents’ education or occupation, their parents’ aggressiveness, or the mother’s and father’s parenting style” ? not to mention age and gender ? the subgroups start to look pretty small. There are also questions of methodology (how was “initial aggression” measured?), but without the full article it’s impossible to say anything about that one way or the other.

Bottom line: Huesmann might be wrong, and even at best his results are suggestive, not conclusive. But he did take into account the possibility that this is just a matter of aggressive kids showing a preference for violent TV. Whether he gave it short shrift for reasons of his own I don’t know, but it’s definitely an option he addressed.

UPDATE: The full-text of the study is here. I’m not remotely competent to judge its conclusions or methodology ? plus it looks kind of long and boring ? but anyone else who wants to read it and report back is welcome to try! In fact, since Kieran is the only blogging sociologist I know, I think I’ll assign this as homework to him. He ought to have some free time next week for this kind of stuff. Right, Laurie?

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