Music, Media, and Aggression

Media exposure is ever-present in our society – its effects have been studied in relation to a number of human behaviors. In most research, media exposure is often operationalized as how often individuals view/partake in TV Shows, Movies, and Video Games. While this is not a bad measure of media exposure, I can’t help but think that there is a gaping hole in it – namely exposure to auditory media. That’s right, music. Music is a generally understudied aspect of media exposure in the realm of psychology. This summer, music is being studied (by Dr. Chris Barlett and Doug Kowalewski) in regards to its relationship with aggressive behavior. In addition, several other studies are being undertaken to further enrich the media exposure literature – in terms of both adding music and the entire paradigm itself.

Music has been studied in psychology rather minimally – especially in comparison to other types of media. In the past, social psychologists have primarily studied music lyrics and their effect on pro-social or aggressive behaviors/attitudes. Knowing this, the first project being undertaken this summer is a meta-analysis of all past studies that have looked at manipulating lyrical content and its effect on aggressive behavior. To do this, I am searching the library’s online databases – as well as Google Scholar – to find all semi-relevant studies. Then I’m going through each individual one, coding the songs that were used, and locating the results. Coding the songs usually takes the longest – I’m essentially inserting standardized musical information for each song (i.e. – the song “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi is in English, has 234 words in its lyrics, 1 aggressive word, 3 aggressive phrases, is at 120 beats per minute (tempo), is 3:44 long, has 4 (out of a scale of 5) bass, has traditional instrumentation (not electronic), has a simple harmony, is sung by a male, is performed by a band of 5 members, and is Rock). I’m coding each song similarly (and with even more variables) so that at the end of the study we can see what other aspects of the music, other than lyrical content, have an effect on aggressive behavior. We’re just at the beginning of this project (it’s our big, overarching one), so we’re not sure how it’s going to work out!

In addition to the meta-analysis, I’m also combing through correlational data that we collected on Amazon Mechanical Turk (an international survey site that provides data cheaply and quickly) that has implications for both media exposure and, more specifically, music exposure. We’ve already submitted for publication a study, using this data, looking at the relationship between violent media exposure and cyberbullying behavior. In addition, I’m also coding the songs that participants listed as their three favorites in a manner similar to the way I’m doing the meta-analysis songs. The goal is to see if there is any relationship between particular elements of the song and the participants’ self-reported aggressive attitudes and behaviors. We’re still going through this project too, but the data looks pretty good and we’re hopeful to find results that we can look at along with the meta-analysis data.

Speaking of cyberbullying, we’re also very close to submitting for publication a paper regarding the Barlett-Gentile Cyberbullying Model (BGCM). The longitudinal research, taken over ten waves, provides insights into the learning mechanisms that underlay the BGCM. Specifically, our results show that as individuals cyberbully, they learn that they are relatively anonymous when they do so, and that their physical strength doesn’t matter. This learning leads to positive attitudes regarding cyberbullying behavior, which in turn leads to increased cyberbullying behavior. Our results also show that this increased cyberbullying behavior predicts even higher feelings of anonymity and the belief that physical strength doesn’t matter online. This final finding is a very important addition to the BGCM, as it shows that the model continues on over time.

Overall, psychology research involves a lot of looking at past work, finding how you can contribute to the literature, and designing studies that will allow you to do so. It also helps to be interested in the topic you’re researching (I for one really enjoy the music and media aspects of our work). So far, the experience of researching music, media, and aggression has been thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding.

I better get back to it – there’s plenty of more music to listen to!


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