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Why Do People Enjoy Watching Natural Disasters and Human Violence on Television? A Reversal Theory Perspective

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We explored the psychological links that may exist between people’s choices of television program, conversation topics around the content of these programs, and people’s perceived degree of threat associated with these programs. The theoretical framework of the study was Reversal Theory (Apter, 2001). Participants were presented with a series of questionnaires assessing the degree of threat associated with potentially stressful situations (e.g., running of the bulls), the degree of enjoyment associated with television programs dealing with these situations (e.g., watching a report about the running of the bulls), and the degree of enjoyment associated with participation in conversations about these programs. The overall finding was that (a) most people like to watch frightening television programs because they find these situations to be the most entertaining once their negative consequences have been removed, (b) most people like to choose conversation topics centered on risks and risky situations for the same reason, (c) some people dislike watching frightening television programs and do not preferentially choose conversation topics centered on risks and risky situations because these situations, although not real for them, are still highly stressful, and possibly psychologically harmful. We highlight the usefulness of the concept of protective frame in the domain of risk communication, risk perception, and risk behavior.
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Journal of Motivation, Emotion, and Personality
2014, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 38–49
©2014 by Mariona Portell and Etienne Mullet
DOI: 10.12689/jmep.2014.205
Why Do People Enjoy Watching Natural Disasters and Human Violence
on Television? A Reversal Theory Perspective
Mariona Portell
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Etienne Mullet
Institute of Advanced Studies (EPHE)
Paris, France
We explored the psychological links that may exist between people’s choices of television pro-
gram, conversation topics around the content of these programs, and people’s perceived degree
of threat associated with these programs. The theoretical framework of the study was reversal
theory (Apter, 2001). Participants were presented with a series of questionnaires assessing the
degree of threat associated with potentially stressful situations (e.g., running of the bulls), the
degree of enjoyment associated with television programs dealing with these situations (e.g.,
watching a report about the running of the bulls), and the degree of enjoyment associated with
participation in conversations about these programs. The overall finding was that (a) most
people like to watch frightening television programs because they find these situations to be
the most entertaining once their negative consequences have been removed, (b) most people
like to choose conversation topics centered on risks and risky situations for the same reason, (c)
some people dislike watching frightening television programs and do not preferentially choose
conversation topics centered on risks and risky situations because these situations, although
not real for them, are still highly stressful, and possibly psychologically harmful. We highlight
the usefulness of the concept of protective frame in the domain of risk communication, risk
perception, and risk behavior.
Keywords: media enjoyment; risk perception; threat; catastrophe; protective frame; reversal
theory
Klein & Weinstein (1997) report, “Daily headlines and
cocktail party conversations are filled with information about
carcinogens, natural disasters, new viruses, chronic illnesses,
AIDS, and numerous other health and safety concerns” (p.
25). Why are people generally so attracted by natural dis-
asters and human violence that they tend to put them at
the center of their daily conversations? Why do some peo-
ple tend to preferentially select frightening television pro-
grams? (Davie, 2001; Tamborini, Skalski, Lachlan, Wester-
man, Davis, & Smith, 2005). This study explores the psycho-
logical links that may exist between people’s choices of tele-
vision program, conversation topics centered on the content
of these programs, and people’s perceived degree of threat
associated with these programs. Our basic thesis was that the
more frightening a television program, the more enjoyment
and entertainment people expect from it, the more they tend
to select it for viewing, and the more they like to talk about
it in subsequent conversations.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Etienne Mullet, 17 bis rue de Quefes, F-31830 Plaisance, France.
E-mail: etienne.mullet@wanadoo.fr
Self-awareness and negative self-perception
Moskalenko and Heine (2003) have argued that people
seek dramatic entertainment mainly for its ability to distract
their attention from themselves (their internal world) by at-
tracting their attention to the external world. Self-awareness
is usually perceived as an unpleasant state of mind because
there is always a distance between what we believe we ac-
tually are and have achieved, and what we believe we might
ideally be and have achieved. In other words, self-awareness
tends to be associated with negative self-perception. Dra-
matic experience presents an opportunity to escape the self
by taking the role of observer (being an “I”), rather than be-
ing observed (being a “me”): The more dramatic the experi-
ence, the more it grips people and the more they forget about
their private concerns.
Young (2003) measured the relationship between the
strength of the dramatic experience and the strength of the
fascination it exerts on viewers. Participants in Young’s
study were undergraduate students. For four minutes, they
were presented with a series of ten news clips, some show-
ing somewhat stressful information (Girl chokes on lunch),
and some oering relatively trivial information (Zoo celebra-
tion). They were then instructed to rank these clips in order
of the importance they personally attributed to the news they
38
WHY DO PEOPLE ENJOY VIOLENCE ON TV? 39
contained. After this ranking task was completed, they were
instructed to evaluate each clip on the basis of a series of
dimensions: familiarity with the issue depicted in the clip,
importance of this issue for the community, unpleasantness
(danger, threat) associated with the issue, level of fear gen-
erated by the issue, and so on. Unpleasantness, personal im-
pact, and fear were found to be strongly associated with the
rankings in terms of news importance. The mean level of fear
associated with the most importantly ranked clip was consid-
erably higher than the mean level of fear associated with the
least importantly ranked clip, and the trend was linear. Young
concluded that the level of fear engendered by a program has
strong implications on the perceived importance of news in
television programs. He referred to reversal theory (Apter,
2001) as a possible framework for explaining why fear is an
unpleasant emotional experience that people generally try to
avoid, although they continue to be attracted by news media
that indiscriminately report violence and disasters.
The present study aimed to replicate Young’s (2003) find-
ings regarding the emotional reasons behind the choice of
television programs and to extend it to the case of subse-
quent conversions about these programs: Why do people
like frightening programs? Why are accidents, catastrophes,
troubles, and illnesses so interesting and entertaining when
displayed on the television screen? Why are they such fre-
quent topics of conversation during coee breaks? As sug-
gested by Young, this is the type of question reversal theory is
especially able to analyze eectively (Apter, 2001; see also,
Kerr, 2004; Rutledge & Tucker, 2007).
Reversal theory
Reversal theory (Apter, 2001; 2007) is a general theory
of motivation, emotion, personality and stress, based on a
phenomenological analysis of everyday experience. The ba-
sic tenet is that each of us is a dierent kind of person at
dierent times, so our personality changes during the course
of everyday life. Underlying this dynamic is a structure of
four opposing pairs of states, each pair representing opposite
ways of experiencing the world in some fundamental respect.
The pair of states of particular relevance to this study is com-
posed of the so-called telic and paratelic states. The telic
state is one in which the goal is experienced as being of over-
riding importance, and activities are simply means towards
that end. The paratelic state is one in which the ongoing
activity is experienced to be of central importance, and goals
are there to simply to make the activity more interesting. The
opposing values here are achievement (telic) and enjoyment
(paratelic). The point of view of the telic state is serious and
that of the paratelic state is playful.
One of the key phenomenological characteristics that dis-
tinguish the states relates to what is known in reversal the-
ory as a “protective frame” (Apter, 1992). This experiential
frame, when present, means that the individual feels cut o
from significant consequences. This is one of the aspects
of playfulness and activity-orientation and is, therefore, a
defining feature of the paratelic state. The goal-oriented telic
state, by contrast, lacks this frame and as a result is aware of
consequences, including the serious consequences of things
going wrong. A further contrasting characteristic of the two
states is that in the telic state one finds any kind of arousal to
be unpleasant. It can be experienced as, for example, anxi-
ety. In the paratelic state, arousal is pleasant and is experi-
enced instead as a form of pleasurable excitement. In other
words, in the playful paratelic state, anything threatening or
risky will be experienced as enjoyable, provided a reversal to
the telic state does not occur. Thus a reversal represents an
abrupt change in the way stimulating or arousing situations
are experienced. Emotions that are unpleasant in the telic
state, such as anxiety, but that are experienced as pleasant in
the paratelic state, are known in the theory, in their pleasant
form, as parapathic emotions.
Consequently, from the reversal theory perspective,
threatening situations will tend to be experienced as unpleas-
ant in the telic state and as pleasant in the paratelic state,
because of the protective frame. The stronger the protec-
tive frame, the more the individual will be able to face up
to threats and, seemingly paradoxically, convert the resulting
arousal into pleasure. A protective frame may be an entirely
personal way of viewing things at a particular moment, but
more often there are features of the situation that help to es-
tablish such a frame. One of these (Apter, 1992) is the frame
in which one sees oneself to be a mere observer (a “me” in
Moskalenko and Heine’s terminology) of the threatening sit-
uation and not directly involved (an “I” in this terminology)
(see also Sparks, Spirek & Hodgson, 1993). This is used by
spectators of dangerous sports, audiences of thriller movies,
and so on, and will be the kind of protective frame to be
investigated in the present experiment. In terms of televi-
sion, reversal theory suggests that the distance created by the
medium usually allows us to enjoy arousing material within
a protective frame, even if the material is about unpleasant
events (see also Hill, 2000).
It is also possible to add protective frames to each other
in order to make the overall protective frame increasingly
robust. For example, people discussing something danger-
ous that is now in the past will be experiencing the danger
through a protective frame. This means that people who
are discussing something dangerous or unpleasant that was
merely observed in the past will be experiencing the danger
through two protective frames and will be particularly likely
to find the conversation pleasant and resist a reversal into the
telic state. In this study we will also include the use of mul-
tiple protective frames.
40 MARIONA PORTELL
Hypotheses
As in Young’s (2003) study, we make use of a series of
questionnaires assessing the same more or less threatening
situations from dierent points of view. The first point of
view is that of actuality; that is, the one in which what hap-
pens is something that actually happens to the person in the
real world, and the possible negative consequences of what
happens are actually suered by that person (correspond-
ing to the perceived unpleasantness condition in Young).
From this no-protective-frame viewpoint, participants were
instructed to consider a series of items representing various
levels of more or less painful or catastrophic situations and
assess the degree of threat they currently associate with these
situations. We expected these assessments to be strongly cor-
related to independent assessments made later using classical
risk perception scales (Chauvin, Hermand, & Mullet, 2007).
The second point of view is that of the visual depiction of
reality; here, what happens does not happen to the observers
but is merely observed by them and, as a result, the conse-
quences of what happens are not actually suered directly.
From this one-protective-frame viewpoint, participants were
instructed to consider a series of more or less interesting and
entertaining television programs that completely paralleled
the series of actual painful or catastrophic situations and to
assess the degree of interest and entertainment they associate
with these programs (corresponding to the personal impor-
tance condition in Young’s study). This allowed a direct
comparison between threat assessments from the first point
of view and interest and entertainment assessments from the
second point of view.
Our first hypothesis (H1), directly borrowed from Young’s
(2003) results, was that the overall mean score of the threat
attributed to the actual situations would be positively cor-
related with the overall mean score of the interesting and
entertaining character attributed to the corresponding tele-
vision programs. An auxiliary hypothesis (H1a) was that
both scores would also be correlated with participants’ self-
reported television habits; that is, participants would tend to
report having more frequently watched frightening television
programs (the ones also adjudged to be more entertaining)
than television programs corresponding to non-threatening
situations.
A second hypothesis (H2), borrowed from reversal the-
ory, was that among a minority of participants, the individ-
ual scores of the threatening character attributed to the actual
situations should be negatively correlated with the individual
scores of the interesting and entertaining character attributed
to the corresponding television programs. We expected the
playful paratelic state to correspond with television viewing
in general, where anything threatening or risky will be ex-
perienced as enjoyable. However, for a minority of the par-
ticipants, we expected the perceived threat from the televi-
sion programs to be so strong that a reversal to the telic state
would spontaneously occur. As a result, we expected this
minority of participants to inversely score the threatening sit-
uations and the corresponding television programs, while the
majority of the participants would score the threating situa-
tions and their corresponding television programs similarly.
The third point of view is that of the verbal evocation of
the reality: a two- protective-frame condition. This condition
was obtained by instructing the participants to imagine that
they are in a train compartment with someone with whom
they could converse about a recent television program. They
were to assess dierent possible conversation topics depend-
ing on their willingness to take part in the conversation. In
fact, the series of conversation topics completely paralleled
the series of actual threatening situations in such a way that,
as in the previous condition, a direct comparison between
degree of threat assessment and degree of inclination to take
part in the conversation might be compared.
Our third hypothesis (H3) was that the assessments of
the threatening situations would be more strongly correlated
with the willingness to take part in conversation about such
situations than with the assessments of the interesting and en-
tertaining character of the situations when presented on tele-
vision. An auxiliary hypothesis (H3a) was that conversation
topic assessments would be more strongly correlated to par-
ticipants’ risk perception assessments than interest and en-
tertainment programs are. The fourth and last point of view
was that of the verbal evocation of past reality: the familiarity
condition in Young’s study. This was obtained by instructing
the participants to report on the dierent occurrences in their
lives that may have corresponded to one or more of the situ-
ations presented in the previous reality condition. This view-
point was used as a control condition. Our fourth hypothe-
sis (H4), based on Young’s findings, was that the correlation
should be lower than +.10; that is, close to zero or negative.
Method
Participants
The participants were 153 students (124 females and 29
males) from Barcelona, recruited on a voluntary basis. They
were aged 19 to 27 (M=21.27,S D =3.44). Participants
were contacted through psychology courses. The acceptance
rate was high: 82% of the people contacted agreed to partic-
ipate in the study.
Material
Six questionnaires were used:
1. The No Protective Frame questionnaire. This was com-
posed of a list of 15 more or less painful situations. These
situations ranged from cycling to being caught in an earth-
quake. They are described in Table 1.
2. The One Protective Frame questionnaire. This was
composed of a list of 15 more or less interesting television
WHY DO PEOPLE ENJOY VIOLENCE ON TV? 41
Table 1
The 15 Situations
Real Life Condition TV Program Condition
Elevator During your holidays in a foreign country there is an
earthquake while you are inside an elevator. The eleva-
tor is blocked and you can’t get out.
You watch, in a live broadcast, a report about the
catastrophe of a serious earthquake. This report in-
cludes many sequences about people trapped in eleva-
tors, which have been recorded by security cameras.
Train You are a passenger on a derailed train which is on the
point of falling.
You watch, in a live broadcast, a derailed train.
San Fermin You are participating in the running of the bulls
(“encierro”) in Pamplona’s San Fermin festival. You
are running behind two bulls and one of them suddenly
turns towards you.
You watch a report about the running of the bulls
(“encierro”) in Pamplona’s San Fermin festival. You
can see a person running behind two bulls and one of
them suddenly turns towards him.
Quarrel You are in demonstration and suddenly, close to you,
a very violent quarrel breaks out between one young
demonstrator group and an opposing group.
You watch a report on violence at demonstrations. This
report includes many violent sequences which have
been recorded in the foreground.
Stitch You watch while a deep cut in your forearm is stitched. You watch a report on emergency surgery which in-
cludes many sequences showing deep cuts on limbs be-
ing stitched.
Wrestling You take part in an unprofessional wrestling bout. You are present at an unprofessional wrestling bout.
Drug You are totally drugged (with substances like ecstasy). You watch a report on the eects of “designer” drugs
on behavior. This report includes many sequences
about the common behavior of people who are totally
drugged.
Immersion You dive very deep in a nuclear submarine. You watch a report on a nuclear submarine immersion.
This report includes many sequences, recorded inside
the submarine, showing the eects of deep immersion
on the passengers.
Dentist You have your wisdom tooth pulled out. You watch a report on dentistry. This report includes
many sequences about wisdom teeth being extracted.
Blood Sample Your blood is being extracted for testing. You watch a report on blood testing. This report in-
cludes many sequences showing people’s blood being
extracted.
Cooking You are cooking and you are spattered with boiling oil. You watch a cooking program on how to decrease the
risk of burns. This report includes many sequences
showing second degree burns.
Skating In a skating rink you crash with another skater. You watch a report on skating accidents. This report
includes many sequences showing collisions in small
ice rinks in which many people are skating at the same
time.
Tattooing You are getting a tattoo done (back, arms, legs.. . ). You watch a report on tattooing (back, arms, legs. . . ).
This report includes many sequences showing live
broadcasts of tattooing.
Skiing You are skiing. You watch a report on skiing. This report includes many
sequences showing amateur skiers.
Biking You ride on bike through a residential area with almost
no trac.
You watch a scene in which a person is riding a bike
through a residential area with almost no trac.
42 MARIONA PORTELL
Table 2
Means and Standard Deviations Observed for the 15 Situations for the Six Viewpoints
Interest and Entertainment Personal TV Perceived
Threat Watch TV Talk about TV Experience Habits Risk
Q #1 Q #2 Q #3 Q #4 Q #5 Q #6
0 PF 1 PF 2 PFs
Item M SD M SD M SD M M M
Elevator 2.02 1.60 6.67 4.35 3.38 2.41 1.48 4.99 7.91
Train 2.07 1.78 7.11 4.15 4.27 2.63 8.35 4.68 7.13
San Fermin 4.32 2.18 7.91 3.36 7.98 3.55 1.27 3.94 6.63
Quarrel 5.76 2.40 5.15 2.89 5.07 2.73 3.50 6.13 5.75
Stitch 6.07 2.81 7.92 4.33 6.85 3.78 2.42 3.19 4.46
Wrestling 7.01 2.74 11.28 3.47 10.88 3.40 1.13 2.34 5.89
Drug 7.26 3.05 2.57 2.00 3.01 2.32 1.78 6.92 7.97
Immersion 7.30 2.94 6.61 3.45 7.48 3.44 1.47 1.97 4.99
Dentist 8.77 2.86 10.62 3.20 10.93 2.94 3.93 1.44 3.12
Blood Sample 10.35 3.11 9.77 3.42 9.72 3.42 5.24 2.37 2.32
Cooking 10.55 2.90 9.41 3.24 9.56 3.15 4.03 2.16 4.85
Skating 10.77 2.55 9.12 2.92 10.57 2.39 3.72 1.92 4.04
Tattooing 10.81 2.53 5.63 3.57 6.31 3.30 1.54 3.41 3.89
Skiing 12.13 2.24 7.76 4.45 10.59 3.65 4.26 4.63 4.55
Biking 14.62 1.42 12.32 3.85 13.17 2.92 6.21 2.33 3.84
Q# =Question number, PF =Protective Frame
programs. These programs were completely parallel to the
painful situations invoked in the first questionnaire. They
ranged from a program showing people cycling to a program
bluntly reporting on an earthquake. They are described in
Table 1.
3. The Two Protective Frames questionnaire. This was
composed of a list of 15 more or less interesting conversa-
tions about television programs. These programs were the
same as the ones evoked in the second questionnaire.
4. The Personal Experience questionnaire. This was com-
posed of the same list of 15 more or less painful situations
used in the first questionnaire, plus 6 additional situations,
used as distracters. Next to each situation there was an 11-
point response scale labeled from Never been in this kind of
situation to Often been in this kind of situation.
5. The Television Habits questionnaire. This was com-
posed of the same list of 21 situations used in the fourth ques-
tionnaire. By each situation, there was an 11-point response
scale labeled from I have never watched a program about
this kind of situation to I have frequently watched programs
about this kind of situation.
6. The Risk Perception questionnaire. This was composed
of the same list of 21 situations used in the fourth and fifth
questionnaires. By each situation, there was an 11-point re-
sponse scale labeled from No risk to Extremely risky.
Procedure
The administration of the questionnaires was partly coun-
terbalanced. Participants were divided into three groups. As
in Young (2003), the procedure used for the first three ques-
tionnaires was a ranking procedure. The first group of par-
ticipants (N=51) was first presented with the No Protective
Frame questionnaire. They were invited to consider all 15
situations and select the one that if experienced in daily life
would appear to be the most threatening. Once selected, this
situation was assigned a rank of 1, and deleted. Participants
were then invited to consider all 14 remaining situations and
select, again, the one that appeared to be the most threat-
ening. Once selected, this situation was assigned a rank of
2, and deleted, and so on until there was only one situation
remaining that was ranked 15.
Next we presented this group of participants the One Pro-
tective Frame questionnaire. Participants were invited to
consider all 15 television programs (which corresponded to
the 15 previously considered situations) and rank them in
terms of interest and entertainment using the same procedure.
Next these participants were presented with the Two Pro-
tective Frames questionnaire. Participants were invited to
imagine they were traveling by train and that a conversation
about a recent television program ensued between two people
in the same compartment. They were presented with a set of
15 possible conversation topics paralleling the 15 television
programs shown in the previous list. They were instructed
to rank them in terms of willingness to participate using the
same procedure. In this way, each participant produced a
personal ranking of items in each of the first three question-
naires.
WHY DO PEOPLE ENJOY VIOLENCE ON TV? 43
Table 3
The 15 Situations Ordered by the Mean of the Participants’ Responses for the Six Viewpoints
Interest and Entertainment Personal TV Perceived
Threat Watch TV Talk about TV Experience Habits Risk
Q #1 Q #2 Q #3 Q #4 Q #5 Q #6
0 PF 1 PF 2 PFs
1 Elevator Drug Drug Wrestling Dentist Blood Sample
2 Train Quarrel Elevator San Fermin Skating Dentist
3 San Fermin Tattooing Train Immersion Immersion Biking
4 Quarrel Immersion Quarrel Elevator Cooking Tattooing
5 Stitch Elevator Tattooing Tattooing Biking Skating
6 Wrestling Train Stitch Drug Wrestling Stitch
7 Drug Skiing Immersion Stitch Blood Sample Skiing
8 Immersion San Fermin San Fermin Quarrel Stitch Cooking
9 Dentist Stitch Cooking Skating Tattooing Immersion
10 Blood Sample Skating Blood Sample Dentist San Fermin Quarrel
11 Cooking Cooking Skating Cooking Skiing Wrestling
12 Skating Blood Sample Skiing Skiing Train San Fermin
13 Tattooing Dentist Wrestling Blood Sample Elevator Train
14 Skiing Wrestling Dentist Biking Quarrel Elevator
15 Biking Biking Biking Train Drug Drug
Q# =Question number, PF =Protective Frame
Next we presented these participants with the Personal
Experience questionnaire and asked them to indicate the ex-
tent to which they had previously actually been exposed to
each of the 21 (15+6) situations, using the response scales.
Then the participants were presented with the Television
Habits questionnaire and asked to indicate the extent to
which they had previously watched these types of programs
over the previous 24 months, using the response scales. Fi-
nally, participants were presented with the Risk Perception
questionnaire and asked to indicate the degree of risk they
associate to each situation, using the response scales.
For the second group of participants (N=51), we pre-
sented the instruments in the following order: One Protec-
tive Frame, Two Protective Frames, No Protective Frame,
Television Habits, Risk Perception, and Personal Experience.
The third group of participants (N=51) received the instru-
ments in this order: Two Protective Frames, No Protective
Frame, One Protective Frame, Risk Perception, Personal Ex-
perience, and Television Habits. As a result, the No Pro-
tective Frame questionnaire, the One Protective Frame ques-
tionnaire, and the Two Protective Frames questionnaire were
presented in first position to one-third of participants, in sec-
ond position to another third of participants, and in third po-
sition to the remaining third of participants.
Results
Results from the three groups of participants were pooled
together after group dierences regarding means were found
to be non-significant. The means and standard deviations
observed overall for each item are shown in Table 2. For
threatening situations, the lowest mean ranked items (the
most threatening) were being caught in an elevator during an
earthquake, being on a derailed train, and participating in the
San Fermin running of the bulls in Pamplona. By contrast,
the highest mean ranked items (the least threatening) were
skiing and biking. Standard deviations ranged from 1.42 to
3.11, with a median at 2.55. There was a reasonable between-
subjects agreement about what constitutes a threatening situ-
ation.
For the interesting and entertaining character of the tele-
vision programs (representing a single protective frame), the
lowest mean ranked items (the most interesting) were the
program on drugs, the program on quarrels, and the program
on immersion. The highest mean ranked items (the least in-
teresting) were the program on wrestling and the program on
biking. Standard deviations ranged from 2.00 to 4.45, with a
median at 3.45. There was more between-subject disagree-
ment about what constitutes an entertaining program than
about what constitutes a threatening situation.
For the interesting character of conversation topics, the
lowest mean ranked items (the most interesting) were the
program on drugs, the program on earthquake (elevator), and
the program on train accidents. The highest mean ranked
items (the least interesting) were the conversation about den-
tistry and the conversation about biking. Standard deviations
ranged from 2.41 to 3.78, with a median at 3.15. There was
slightly less between-subject disagreement about what con-
stitutes an inviting conversation topic than about what con-
stitutes an entertaining television program.
44 MARIONA PORTELL
Table 4
Correlations between the Assessments Performed under the Six Viewpoints
Interest and Entertainment Personal TV Perceived
Threat Watch TV Talk about TV Experience Habits Risk
Q #1 Q #2 Q #3 Q #4 Q #5 Q #6
0 PF 1 PF 2 PFs
Threat 1.00 .43 .74 -.19 .46 .73
Watch TV .43 1.00 .87 -.32 .79 .57
Talk about TV .74 .87 1.00 -.22 .77 .72
Personal Experience -.19 -.32 -.22 1.00 -.08 -.25
TV Habits .46 .79 .77 .08 1.00 .72
Perceived Risk .73 .57 .72 -.25 .72 1.00
Q# =Question number, PF =Protective Frame
An ANOVA was conducted on the three series of SD
values with Condition (Threatening, One Protective Frame,
Two Protective Frames) as the independent factor. It showed
that the dierences between conditions were significant,
F(2,28) =13.07,p< .001. Post-hoc analyses using Tukey’s
HSD test showed the SD values found in the Two Protective
frame condition were not significantly dierent from the ones
found in the two other conditions.
For personal experience of each of the 15 situations, the
highest mean ratings were for a train accident, blood sam-
ple, and cycling. For television habits, the programs most
watched were about drugs and crowd demonstrations (quar-
rel). Finally, for perceived risk, the situations judged most
risky were being in an elevator during an earthquake, train
accidents, and drugs.
Table 3 shows the 15 situations ordered as a function of the
participants’ mean responses in each condition. Spearman
rank correlation coecients computed on the group level;
that is, between the columns in Table 2, are shown in Table 4.
Between mean ranks in the Zero Protective Frame condition
and mean ranks in the One Protective Frame condition, the
correlation was .43. The more a situation was judged threat-
ening when there was no protection from its actual conse-
quences, the more it tended to be adjudged to be interesting
and entertaining when one was only indirectly exposed to it.
Between mean ranks in the Zero Protective Frame condition
and mean ranks in the Two Protective Frames condition, the
correlation was significantly higher: .74,p< .01. The more
a situation was considered to be threatening when there is no
protection, the more it tended to be considered an inviting
conversation topic.
Overall, correlations involving personal experience were
negative (and generally lower). There was not much rela-
tionship between assessed personal experience and the other
measurements. Television habits were correlated to mean
rankings about the interesting and entertaining character of
the programs and the inviting character of corresponding
conversation topics. Television habits were also correlated
to the means of the perceived risk ratings. The more a situa-
tion is considered to be risky, the more people report having
watched programs dealing with these situations. Finally, risk
perception was correlated to mean ratings for the threaten-
ing character of the situations and the mean ratings for the
inviting character of conversation topics.
Spearman rank correlation coecients were computed on
the individual level. For the individual correlations between
ranks in the Zero Protective Frame condition and ranks in the
One Protective Frame condition (see Figure 1), the most in-
teresting finding was in the form of their distribution (skew-
ness =.47, kurtosis =.62). The histogram was bimodal,
with a majority of participants with positive correlations,
peaking at about .40/.50, and a minority of participants with
negative correlations, peaking at about .40/.50. The eect
of gender, assessed trough t-test performed on transformed
correlations values (into zvalues), was not significant. For
the individual correlations between ranks in the Zero Protec-
tive Frame condition and ranks in the Two Protective Frames
condition (see Figure 2), the histogram also showed bimodal-
ity (skewness =.47, kurtosis =.58), with a majority
of participants with high positive correlations, peaking at
about .50/.60, and a minority of participants with low cor-
relations, peaking at about .00/.10. Between these two dis-
tribution means, the dierence was statistically significant,
t(152) =7.56,p< .001. The eect of gender was not
significant. The correlation between the two series of values
was also significant: .42,p< .001.
Discussion
This study examined the psychological links that may ex-
ist between people’s choices of television programs, conver-
sation topics centered on the content of these programs, and
people’s perceived degree of threat associated with these pro-
grams. It was conducted within the framework of reversal
theory (Apter, 2001).
Our first hypothesis (H1) was that the threatening charac-
ter of real life situations would be positively associated with
WHY DO PEOPLE ENJOY VIOLENCE ON TV? 45
Figure 1. Distribution of the Spearman rank correlation coecients computed on an individual basis between the zero-frame
condition and the one-frame condition. The stars show the modes of the distributions.
the interesting and entertaining character that these same sit-
uations would have when reported on television (i.e. with a
single protective frame). This is what we found. Although
the correlation was not very high, it did point in the ex-
pected direction. This result was consistent with Young’s
(2003) findings showing a positive association between de-
gree of fear associated with a program and level of interest
manifested for this program. It was consistent with Zillman,
Knobloch and Yu’s (2001) findings showing that participants
preferentially chose to read and dedicated more time to read-
ing articles accompanied by photographs depicting violent
situations than texts accompanied by innocuous photographs
or no photograph at all. It was consistent with Cho et al.’s
(2003) suggestion that “television news leads people to be-
come emotionally aroused, with these activated emotional
responses concurrently driving future television news use”
(p. 324). It was also consistent with the overall conclusion
of Honer and Levine’s (2005) review of the determinants
of media enjoyment: Considering how viewers interpret or
appraise their reactions to fright and violence was deemed as
essential if one wants to understand entertainment.
More generally, these results were consistent with trans-
portation theory (Green, Brock & Kaufman, 2004), which
suggests that enjoyment can be derived from the experi-
ence of being immersed in a narrative, unreal world, as well
as from the consequences of the immersion, and with the
Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Johnson, Greeberg, and Solomon
(1999) proposal that vicarious experience of tragedy, through
film and literature, provides a safe, and as a result, enjoyable
way of coping with the fear associated with the idea of one’s
inescapable death.
Our auxiliary hypothesis (H1a) was that threat and en-
tertainment scores would be positively correlated to partic-
ipants’ self-reported television habits. This is what we ob-
served. In particular, participants reported having more fre-
quently watched television programs corresponding to highly
threatening situations than television programs correspond-
ing to non-threatening situations.
The second hypothesis (H2), borrowed from reversal the-
ory, was that, among a minority of participants, the relation-
ship between the threatening character attributed to the ac-
tual situations and the interesting and entertaining character
attributed to the corresponding television program should be
negative. This is what we found. For a majority of indi-
viduals, the more a situation was judged to be threatening
when there was no protection from its actual consequences,
the more it tended to be considered interesting and enter-
taining when one was only indirectly, visually, exposed to
it. But, for a minority of individuals, the more a situation
was judged to be threatening when there was no protection,
the less it tended to be considered interesting and entertain-
ing even when one was only visually exposed to it. In other
words, the protective frame used was not eective for all the
participants. Watching accidents and catastrophes on televi-
sion remains truly displeasing to a minority of people, due
to the psychological (non-physical) consequences associated
with merely seeing them. This result was consistent with
Honer and Levine’s (2005) review showing that individu-
als with greater empathy and those who are less sensation-
seeking and aggressive reported less enjoyment of horror and
violence in television programs.
46 MARIONA PORTELL
The third hypothesis (H3) was that the threatening charac-
ter of real life situations should be more strongly associated
with the inviting character of conversation topics centered
on television programs than with the interesting and enter-
taining character of these same television programs. This is
what was observed. The correlation observed may be con-
sidered high. Individual analyses, however, showed that, as
in the case of television programs, this was only true for one
part of the sample (about two-thirds). For a minority of par-
ticipants, the association was notably lower. This, again, is
highly instructive. The two protective frames used together
were eective for all the participants, but not to the same ex-
tent. In addition, the participants for whom the first protec-
tive frame was ineective tended to be the ones for whom the
second protective frame, although influential, was not eec-
tive enough to completely reverse high threat to high interest
and entertainment. Among these people, conversing about
accidents and catastrophes may still be a somewhat painful
activity.
An auxiliary hypothesis (H3a) was that conversation topic
assessments should be more strongly correlated to partici-
pants’ risk perception assessments than interest and enter-
tainment programs are. This is what we observed. Interest-
ing conversation topics possibly tend to include more risky
issues than interesting television programs, other things be-
ing equal.
The fourth hypothesis (H4) was that the association be-
tween personal experience of accidents, catastrophes and
other risks should be low. This is what we observed and this
finding was consistent with Young’s (2003) findings. As a re-
sult, it can be stated that the associations found between the
five other variables introduced in the study were not contam-
inated by possible, uncontrolled, individual dierences be-
tween participants with respect to the threatening situations
in which they may have found themselves in the past.
Limitations
The main limitation of the study resides in the way the
sample was constituted. Participants were volunteers, and
the sample was composed mainly of female students. As fe-
males have a tendency to have and display more anxiety than
males, this may have aected the results. As a result, the
value of the present study is not in precisely estimating the
size of the correlation between the dierent factors consid-
ered in the study but in adding evidence on the way perceived
threat and anticipated enjoyment, or perceived threat and risk
perception are related the one with the other. Future studies
using more representative samples, and bearing on dierent
types of violent situations (e.g., violence in sport) are needed.
A second limitation resides in that the order in which the
conditions were presented was not completely randomized.
Future studies, using larger samples, should more systemati-
cally examine if the responses observed under one condition
(e.g., presence of one protective frame) dier whether this
condition was the first in which the participants were placed
or whether participants were initially placed in another con-
dition such as presence of two protective frames or threat
assessment. Interesting hypotheses could be tested. For in-
stance: To what extent is the report of television programs
immediately before assessing threat sucient to establish at
least a limited protective frame?
A third limitation resides in that each participants’ level
of telic-paratelic dominance has not been assessed at some
time during data gathering. It would have been very instruc-
tive to relate each participant’s dominance score and his/her
position in each of the distributions shown in Figures 1 and
2.
A fourth limitation resides in the level of measurement.
Future studies should replicate the present one using interval
level data, rather than ranked data. In addition, using rat-
ing scales would allow for multivariate analyses (e.g., regres-
sion) that could test the contribution of one vs. two protective
frames on interest or enjoyment, as well as including prior
actual history with each event as a covariate. Gender might
also be included as a factor in a regression, with sucient
sample.
Implications
The first overall conclusions were that (a) most people
like to watch television programs showing very risky and
threatening situations probably because these situations are
the most entertaining ones once their negative consequences
have been removed, and (b) most people like to choose con-
versation topics centered on threatening and risky situations
probably for the same reason. The implications are straight-
forward: television companies are probably right to so heav-
ily broadcast such programs because they are the ones that
most people really tend to enjoy the most, and as a result,
tend to watch the most, and that most people tend to rec-
ommend to their friends and relatives. As most broadcasters
financially depend on advertising, they are bound to behave
in a way that maximizes their audience ratings (Tai, 2000).
Eorts by television stations to oer family sensitive news-
casts that eliminate unnecessarily violent images will possi-
bly only result in decreased audiences even if the majority
of audience members indicated their dissatisfaction with the
high level of violence shown in newscasts (Lafayette, 1995).
The second overall conclusions were that (c) some people
dislike watching television programs that show very risky sit-
uations because these situations, although not real for them,
are still very stressful, and possibly psychologically harmful,
and (d) some people do not preferentially choose conversa-
tion topics centered on risks and risky situations for the same
basic reason. Because of this, the owners of television chan-
nels, who, for financial reasons, are strongly inclined to avoid
losing even a small share of their potential audience, are also
WHY DO PEOPLE ENJOY VIOLENCE ON TV? 47
Figure 2. Distribution of the Spearman rank correlation coecients computed on an individual basis between the zero-frame
condition and the two-frame condition. The stars show the modes of the distributions.
probably right to include in their programming some purely
innocuous programs (e.g. soap operas), programs in which
nothing seems to happen in the view of other, less sensitive
people. Broadcasters are also probably right to warn viewers
about potentially stressful program content.
As regards risk perception and specifically crime percep-
tion in the environment, one possible, direct consequence of
these preferences for frightening programs is that people tend
to have a partly misshapen view of reality. As a result, peo-
ple’s perspective on societal risks (for example their mag-
nitude, their order of priority, and the amount of money to
be spent on protection from them) may be substantially bi-
ased (see Kpanake, Chauvin, & Mullet, 2008). As shown by
Diefenbach and West (2001), there is a positive relationship
between television exposure and beliefs about crime rates
in the community (see also Goidel, Freeman & Procopio,
2006).
Finally, the suggestion that people tend to select fright-
ening programs on television because they tend to enjoy
them is not contrary to Shoemaker’s (1996) suggestion that
all human beings are, for biological and evolutionary rea-
sons, strongly motivated to monitor the world around them.
From an evolutionary perspective, information about poten-
tial threats in the environment (e.g., presence of predators),
has still more survival value than information about positive
aspects of the environment (e.g., presence of food). Our sug-
gestion is that, in addition to the basic, vital need to keep
up to date, people also experience a need for enjoyment, and
that some form of enjoyment is associated to the viewing of
threatening situations once the immediate consequences of
these situations are removed. It is in this sense that reality
(in fact, “edited” reality) may frequently be declared more
compelling than fiction.
Protective frame, risk communication through the media
and subsequent risk behavior
On a more theoretical level, the concept of the protective
frame has been shown in this study to be a useful one for un-
derstanding apparent contradictions between people’s pref-
erences in actual daily life and people’s preferences in “re-
ported” daily life. Because of one or more protective frames,
threatening situations that are normally experienced as being
the most unpleasant in real life may also be the very ones that
are most “enjoyed” when reported in the media.
More generally, the protective frame concept is potentially
useful in the domain of risk communication, risk perception,
and risk behavior (Gerkovich, 2001). It may help to syn-
thesize a host of parallel findings. It may explain, for ex-
ample, why fearful people perceive themselves to be more
at risk than non-fearful people, why angry people perceive
themselves to be less at risk than non-angry people (Lerner,
Gonzalez, Small & Fischho, 2003), why people tend to pre-
fer risks they believe they can personally control than risks
they believe they cannot control (Klein & Weinstein, 1997),
why people try to reduce their perceived similarity to a re-
putedly risky target (Klein & Weinstein), why some people
engage in more risky sexual behavior with a partner with
whom they are in a close relationship than with casual sexual
partners (Misovich, Fisher, & Fisher, 1997), and why intox-
icated people usually engage in more risky behaviors than
non-intoxicated people (MacDonald, MacDonald, Zanna &
48 MARIONA PORTELL
Fong, 2000). This is because anger, close intimacy, control,
and intoxication are factors that could increase the strength
of an existing protective frame or help create a (fictitious)
protective frame (which Apter, 1992, has referred to as a
‘fallacious frame’). As a result, they tend to contribute to the
enjoyment experienced, in these conditions, from the risky
situation as well as from the act, even if sometimes the con-
sequences are damaging to the actual individual or others.
By contrast, induced fear, memory of previously experi-
enced traumas, and personal similarity to a target that is said
to be at high risk probably decrease the strength of the protec-
tive frame or prevent the creation of a protective frame. As
a result, they tend to contribute to the distress experienced
in these conditions as a result of events that are sometimes
completely innocuous. This would be exemplified by peo-
ple suering from, among other conditions, chronic anxiety,
phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The protective frame concept helps us to understand both
why people sometimes enjoy observing and talking about
risky or unpleasant situations, and even tend to take unnec-
essary risks, and why people sometimes avoid thinking or
talking about risks even in completely safe circumstances. It
has been shown, for example, that during times of societal
threat, people tend to chose more meaningful, less fright-
ening television programs (McIntosh, Schwegler & Terry-
Murray, 2000).
The concept of protective frame is unique to reversal the-
ory, which makes it the only current theory able to fully
explain a host of apparently paradoxical findings, such as
human beings’ ability to positively experience events (e.g.,
earthquakes) or objects (e.g., predators) that thousands years
of evolution should have led them to experience as unpleas-
ant and threatening (see Marshall Thomas, 2006). More im-
portantly, the concept of protective frame, associated with the
concept of reversal, can explain why the objects or events that
are usually experienced as the most threatening under some
circumstances, such as a lion at the door, can be experienced
as the most entertaining and enjoyable under other circum-
stances, such as a lion in a safari park.
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This article studies the rankings of the top 10 world events from 1988 to 1998 by 11 media representing eight countries and examines the similarities as well as differences between/across media and nations. Findings indicate that all media display biases of their own in their rankings of world events and are myopic to those stories that are culturally, geographically and psychologically close. Media from the same national settings show strikingly similar patterns in their evaluations of world news. The US media are the most provincial in their approach to world news while the USA is the top news-maker with all media. The study also reveals some general patterns among media from different national contexts in their approach to evaluating world events.
Book
Rethinking Aggression and Violence in Sport explores the psychological aspects of these two intrinsic elements of competitive sport. This book critically examines the important issues associated with aggression and violence in sport, including: * a review of current theory in the psychology of aggression * exploration of how players become acclimatised to physical violence * discussion of the psychological benefits of sanctioned and unsanctioned sport violence * examination of the moral and ethical dimensions of the debate * the psychological basis of spectator aggression * case studies from a wide variety of sports. This text is a must read for researchers and students within sport studies, psychology and sociology with an interest in human violence and aggressive behaviour.
Article
Many recent studies in mass communication have investigated emotional responses to frightening movies and television programs. However, little research has been directed toward documenting and explaining the occurrence of enduring fright reactions that linger on, in one form or another, long after exposure to the media stimulus. The present study investigated the relationship between individual differences in “arousability”; (as measured by the Stimulus Screening Questionnaire) and the tendency to report enduring negative reactions from exposure to frightening media. In addition, participants in the study were exposed to a segment from a frightening film and self‐report indicators of emotional response were collected and related to arousability. Skin temperature and skin conductance were also monitored during the film segment and related to arousability. The results indicated that arousability was related to both enduring and immediate fright reactions. The physiological indicators were associated with arousability for males, but not for females. Future research directions are suggested.
Article
This article examines the relationship between television viewing and public perceptions of juvenile crime rates and the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system. Special attention was devoted to viewers of television news and shows like Cops and America's Most Wanted, where researchers expected a greater misperception of crime rates and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. The results showed significant media effects on perceptions of juvenile crime and the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system in the expected direction. As viewers watched more crime-related television, they were more likely to misperceive realities of juvenile crime and juvenile justice.