Are we subliminally drawn to violence? Where does that come from?

Studies on violence in film suggest that most people are drawn to the sense of suspense and the thrill of a challenging situation.

columns Updated: Jun 24, 2017 20:09 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
Facebook,Social media,Videos

Why do we watch social videos of beheadings, lynching, attacks, rapes and suicides which, unlike the make-believe violence in film, are real people caught on camera, causing mindless pain, grief and anguish?

The ease of shooting and uploading videos on social platforms has brought violent imagery to everyone’s smartphones.

Recently, there was footage of a homeless woman being beaten by men in Nagaur in Rajasthan. There have been several clips of vigilantes on destructive rampages; there was one of a poor farmer carrying his dead wife home because the hospital refused him a hearse; of the London Bridge terror attack; and of many Islamic State beheadings.

The images are heart-wrenching and far more disturbing than any written descriptions could be. Still, instead of reading about it, we hit play and watch. Very often we share the disturbing footage with our followers and friends. Sometimes we retweet or ‘Like’ the clips too.

Why can’t we stop watching? Is it because we want to face up to the violence latent in society? Are we subconsciously seeking to be shaken out of apathy?

Are we sharing footage to spur outrage to force the authorities to act? Or are we watching it simply because we are subliminally drawn to violence?

Whatever the cause, these videos are shot and posted but they are not forgotten.

Facing up to life

Watching violence helps some people confront the violent aspects of life and helps foster positive emotions such as empathy, admiration for acts of courage and introspection about violent impulses, reported researchers from Germany and the United States some years ago.

Their study found that watching others in distress helped people re-examine their own violent thoughts and impulses and consider how they would have responded if they’d been placed in a similar situation.

Behavioural scientists say that now that most people are rarely in an adrenalinecharged‘ fight or fight situation’ in their daily lives, watching others in distress gives them a window into social aggression that hasn’t directly touched their lives. It’s a voyeuristic experience but it’s not one that gives pleasure. It is an empathetic gateway into the many things that can potentially go wrong with one’s life or with the lives of people one loves.

Previous studies on violence in films and video games also suggest that most people are not necessarily attracted to aggression and gore, but are drawn to the associated thrill and suspense and the associated insights into human behaviour in a challenging situation.

Copycat potential

The worrying aspect of sharing violent videos is its potential to trigger copycat behaviour in people who are mentally distressed. How widely a video of a violent act is shared on social media has been linked to an increased likelihood of copycat violence in at risk persons, reported a US study in the journal, PLOS One. This happens because watching real-life violence plants seeds of ideation in at-risk persons and propels them to commit similar acts, said researchers.

An obvious example is the recent spurt in cow vigilante violence across northern in India. What’s better documented, however, is the many school shootings in the United States, where a Mother Jones investigation showed that the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999 that killed 13 persons and injured 24, spawned at least 74 plots or attacks across 30 states in the US over the next 15 years.

When to hit play

With violent videos going viral within minutes, there are calls for the hosting social media platforms to have better algorithms to flag and remove offending content before it’s widely shared.

The platforms make money from every click, argue critics, and must have some accountability over the content they host.

Censorship, however, is not the solution, it just drives content underground. For one, with more than 3.7 billion internet users in the world, it’s easier said than done. Also, algorithms can rarely match the human capacity to decipher intent behind a post. Anyway, however good the algorithm, it will not be able to take the post off a social platform fast enough.

Since we cannot glance away from disturbing realities, censorship has to begin with each one of us.

Before hitting play, we have to ask whether we are viewing a post because it’s adding to our understanding of the world and human behaviour or whether we are driven by voyeuristic curiosity.

Human suffering cannot be turned into entertainment because empathising with other people’s pain is what makes us human.

First Published: Jun 19, 2017 10:17 IST