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Should we be concerned?

Uh oh.  Apparently, per a study I first read about at The Awl, when we read about violence and aggression, it affects us psychologically and might alter the way we respond when provoked.  I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I’m on record for loving antiheroes and sociopath protagonists, plus a whole bunch of us represent books with clear violence in them.  Should our interns be watching their backs?  Or maybe just being careful not to provoke us?  I’d hate to accidentally shank someone with my letter opener when they came for help about the copier not working just because I happened to be in the middle of an edit memo to a horror novelist.  (Full disclosure, I just googled the difference between “shank” and “shiv” because I wasn’t sure if they were synonymous or if both could be verbs.  I watch plenty of police procedurals, so you’d think I’d know, but I’m still not totally sure I’m using it in an appropriate manner.  Parts of the un-policed wilds of Urban Dictionary seem to think I’m in the clear.  Others seem to disagree, since I won’t be crafting the shanking object myself from a normally non-stabby object. Anyone have an authoritative opinion on the matter?)

I’m having a hard time really wrapping my mind around the distinction that it doesn’t increase aggressiveness, but: “In both cases, provoked people who were given the opportunity to engage in a specific form of retaliatory violence were more likely to do so if they had just read a fictional account of similar activity.”  The key here may be provocation and specificity of response, but I’m not entirely sure.  Still, it’s an interesting idea, even if it’s not “Hollywood and video games! Who will think of the children?!?!”-style panic.

On the one hand, aggression isn’t good, and retaliatory violence seems ill advised.  On the other, it’s good to know that books can impact us in myriad subtle ways.  We’re readers here, so we all know books can make us think, laugh, cry.  They can move us and transform us.  It’s nice to know they can also subtly alter us and change our perceptions, since they’re still more likely to come with some sort of moral or ethical agenda—however nuanced, well crafted, and non-reductive—than plenty of video games and movies.  Nice for anyone not getting shanked as a result, at least.*

*No interns were harmed in the making of this blog entry.

6 Responses to Should we be concerned?

  1. RamseyH says:

    I don’t find this surprising in the least. If the Brothers Karamazov could change the way I relate to the world in a positive way, I’m sure there are many negative examples. The key, as you said, is being open to the change. Most of us are not open to becoming “more violent.” But if we read with the right mindset, books can change us in wonderful, powerful ways.

  2. Jessi says:

    I do wonder how much is due to the actual violence and how much is due to the exciting climax. If the climax is exciting, it could get the students more aggressive because they’re excited. (Maybe an action packed climax about two people racing would have the same effect as the two people fighting?)
    I know books can influence my actions, since when I started reading books about heroes, I wanted to be brave, like those heroes. This might have caused a little more aggression since I didn’t want to back down since that wouldn’t be heroic. In the long run, I think it influenced me for the better since it made me more willing to stand up for others.
    I don’t think aggression, in itself, is the problem. For example, a man who stops a kidnapper from kidnapping a child might be more aggressive than a man who cowers in fear and lets it happen. None of the studies I’ve seen show if books are making kids more villainous or more heroic.

  3. Interesting thought…I guess I should put down my murder mystery before seeing my noncompliant patients. But then again it might be helpful…

  4. Mike Mullin says:

    Well let’s see… if reading caused violent behavior, our prisons would be highly literate places. In fact, the opposite is true: http://justice.uaa.alaska.edu/forum/24/2summer2007/b_literacyinmates.html

  5. Gilbert J. Avila says:

    I believe “shank” is a verb form and “shiv” is a noun–“I took out my shiv and shanked that rotten stoolie.”

  6. D. A. Hosek says:

    I’ve long had a tendency to take on personality characteristics of characters in novels I’ve read. It left me afraid to read Lolita for years.

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