To understand the effects of repeated exposure to violence, researchers have suggested that viewers become comfortable with violence that is initially anxiety provoking, much as they would if they were undergoing exposure therapy. According to Gordon Paul and D. A. Bernstein (1973), exposure therapy is widely regarded as the most effective clinical therapy for training individuals to engage in behaviors that were previously inhibited by anxiety responses. Originally, researchers emphasized a therapeutic counterconditioning technique known as "systematic desensitization," in which the patient was gradually and systematically exposed to a graded series of anxiety provoking objects or situations. Many researchers, including Edna B. Foa and Michael J. Kozak (1986), have demonstrated that simply exposing a patient to frightening stimuli, regardless of whether it is presented in graduated form, will significantly diminish the anxiety or negative affect that the stimulus once evoked. This logic may be applied to the effects of repeated exposure to media violence.
More recently, Daniel Linz, Edward Donner-stein, and Steven Penrod (1984, 1988) measured the reactions of adult men to films that portrayed violence against women, often in a sexual context. The viewings took place over a period of several days, and comparisons of first-day reactions and last-day reactions to the films showed that, with repeated exposure, initial levels of self-reported anxiety decreased substantially. Furthermore, the research participants' perceptions of the films also changed from the first day to the last day. Material that was previously judged to be violent and degrading to women was considered to be significantly less so by the end of the exposure period. Participants also indicated that they were less depressed and enjoyed the material more with repeated exposure. These effects generalized to responses to a victim of sexual assault in a mock trial presented to the men at a later time. Men who had been exposed to the sexually violent films, compared to a no-exposure group, rated the victim as being less severely injured. The men who had been exposed to the violent film, again compared to men in a no-exposure control group, were also less sympathetic to the rape victim portrayed in the trial and less able to empathize with rape victims in general. These effects did not emerge following exposure to a single film. Longer film exposure was necessary for it to affect the violence-viewing participants' general empathetic response. Linz and his colleagues (1984, 1988) suggested that the viewers were becoming comfortable with anxiety-provoking situations much as they would if they were undergoing desensitization therapy. Carol Krafka and her associates (1997) observed these same effects for women who viewed sexual violence. Linz and his colleagues (1989) also showed that a reduction in physiological responsiveness accompanies repeated exposure to sexualized violence and that viewing violent films results in less sympathy for victims of domestic violence as well as rape victims.
"In conclusion, exposure to violence in the mass media may result in a desensitization effect in which viewers experience diminished feelings of concern, empathy, or sympathy toward victims of actual violence. Research has shown that viewers who watch large amounts of media violence show less physiological reactivity to violence in other contexts. Men and women who are exposed to sexual violence in the media also show less sympathy toward rape victims portrayed in other contexts and are generally less able to empathize
with rape victims. However, resensitization to victims after desensitization may occur given a sufficient rest period"
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