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399-409 (1976)

identification with Film Characters, Covert Aggressive Verbalization, and Reactions to Film Violence

University of Queensland



To determine some conditions governing the aggressive aftereffects of identification with aggressive film characters, men were first angered by a confederate and then exposed to a film clip of a violent boxing match. Subjects instructed to identify with the winner of the prize-fight were subsequently more aggressive toward the confederate than subjects instructed to identify with the loser or subjects not asked to identify with a film aggressor. Apparently, viewers must perceive their identificand incur reinforcement for his aggression before they become more aggressive themselves. However, requiring subjects to make implicit aggressive verbalizations during the him completely eliminated any aggressive aftereffects of identification. This finding was opposite to prediction and suggested that covert verbalization interfered with subjects’ ability to make the vicarious aggressive responses which mediate increased subsequent aggression.

In view of the fact that people frequently report taking sides and even vicariously participating in the aggressive episodes they witness, it seems important to determine under what conditions these role-taking experiences may produce aggressive aftereffects. A relevant experiment by Turner and Berkowitz (1972) found that angry college men instructed to identify with the aggressor in a film-mediated aggressive boxing match were subsequently more aggressive than men who identified with a judge watching the fight or men who did not identify with a film character. The authors suggested that subjects who took the role of film aggressor thought of themselves as hitting an opponent along with the lilm character and these vicarious aggressive responses served later to intensify the subjects’ own attacks against a victim. One aim of the present study was to test the generality of the ‘Turner and Berkowitz (1972) results on several fronts. First, in their study, subjects assigned to identify with the aggressive film character were always instructed to take the role of the boxer who ultimately won the fight and
thus perceived their identificand as incurring reinforcement for his violent

activities. This raises the question of whether aggressive aftereffects of identification are limited to those instances in which the tilm character is
Requests for reprints should be sent to David G. Perry, Department of Psychology, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, 4067. 399
Copyright All rights @ 1976 by Academic Press. Inc. of reproduction in any form reserved.

This is because subjects are likely to interpret no consequences to the model following an aggressive display as implicitly reinforcing (cf. the prizefight scene was introduced to subjects via a tape-recorded summary which implied that the victim deserved the beating he was about to get. The present study compared the aggressive consequences of identifying with the victim of an aggressive assault to those of identifying with the victor. one might in fact predict less aggression in subjects identifying with a victim than in subjects who do not identify with an aggressive film character. In the Turner and Berkowitz (1972) study. identifying with the victim probably increases subjects’ attention to signs of pain and suffering which might lower the likelihood of aggression through the empathic arousal of aggression-inhibiting anxiety. Subjects were initially angered and then shown the aggressive boxing sequence from the film The Champion. Moreover. In the present study. since most fights do have a victor and a victim the comparison would appear to be more interesting ecologically as well. Bandura. Subjects asked to identify with someone behaving in a morally unjustified fashion may well reject that person’s behavior as a model for their own. We also expected subjects who identified with the victim to show no more. loser. One way to examine this issue is to compare identification with the film victor to that with the tilm loser. We expected subjects who identified with the winner subsequently to behave more aggressively than subjects in the other two groups. and no identification control).g. 1%5) has shown that subjects are unlikely to imitate a model’s responses if negative consequences accrue to the model for performing them. A second variable of interest concerned the perceived justification of the film violence. Furthermore. On the basis of such considerations. Bandura. We would predict that aggressive aftereffects should not occur in subjects identifying with a loser since those subjects are in effect vicariously punished for performing implicit aggressive responses when their identificand takes a beating at the hands of his opponent and loses the match. It is possible that identification with a film aggressor increases aggression only when the subject regards his model’s aggression as appropriate or morally warranted. and perhaps even less.400 PERRY AND PERRY successful in his aggressive pursuits. One-third of the subjects were assigned to each of three identification treatment conditions (winner. Previous research (e. Using identification with the loser as the comparison condition appears to be more valid than using a comparison condition in which subjects identify with a film character who is neither rewarded nor punished for his aggression. aggression than those not identifying with a film aggressor. 1%5).. the film violence was introduced as justified to one-half the subjects in each identification condition .

We expected that the effect of these verbalization instructions would be to strengthen the effects of identification in the subjects assigned to these conditions. Consequently. pilot data led us to question seriously the validity of assuming that subjects were spontaneously engaging in covert verbalizations at the times they pressed the button. If subjects were making verbalizations consistent with their identification instructions. Turner and Berkowitz requested one-half the men in each identification condition to press a button on a handswitch each time they saw the aggressor hit his opponent. Thus. This became an aim of the present study. We expected the aggression-enhancing effects of aggressive identification to be attenuated or absent when the identificand behaved in an unjustified fashion. That is.” Of the first 12 subjects tested. and reasonably so. If this is so. such as “0~” or “uh. it was decided in the procedure of the present study to request all subjects to button-press each time they saw the aggressor strike the victim. button-pressing per se may serve simply to focus attention on events in the film rather than to elicit specific covert verbalizations. Each subject in the present study was asked upon completion of the experiment if he could recall saying anything to himself on occasions when he pressed the button (or at any point during the film). that implicit aggressive verbalizations made while viewing the filmed violence should enhance subsequent aggression.IDENTIFICATION WITH FILM CHARACTERS 401 and as unjustified to the other half.” In order to control for the effect of verbalization per se. Our final aim was to reexamine one of the major hypotheses of the Turner and Berkowitz (1972) research. then the hypothesis that implicit aggressive verbalization affects aggression remains to be tested. One-half the subjects in each group were explicitly instructed to engage in covert verbalizations which were consistent with their identification condition each time they pressed the button. In what they considered a test of this hypothesis. verbalizing subjects in the no identification group were requested to say to themselves the word “now” each time they pressed the button. 258). verbalizing subjects in the aggressor identification condition were asked to say “hit him” or “kill him” and verbalizing subjects in the victim identification group were to say “0~” or “uh. then those identifying with the aggressor should be saying something akin to “hit him” or “kill him.” and those assigned to the victim should be experiencing verbal concomitants of physically painful experiences. . These authors argued. we expected differences among the three levels of identification to be strongest under verbalization conditions. not one reported making any sort of covert verbalization during the film. Because button-pressing did seem to enhance the effects of aggressive identification (and vice versa). However. assuming that the men would thereby be “encouraged to think ‘hit’ with each blow they saw” (p. particularly in the case of subjects thinking of themselves as the movie aggressor.

Turner and Berkowitz (1972). the experimenter explained that subjects were next to observe a film clip of a boxing match. another third to think of themselves as Kelly (the victim). In a schedule designed to make the subject moderately angry with his partner. employed an additional control condition in which subjects were induced to think of themselves as a watching judge. Upon arrival. each subject was given two shocks for his first proposal. To help focus your attention in . only one. and were given an opportunity to withdraw from the experiment. The anger arousal manipulation followed. because there were no significant differences between their no identification and judge identification control conditions. He explained that while viewing the film each was to follow the instructions printed on an instruction card. five for the third. Kirk Douglas’ opponent. after which each of his ideas would be evaluated by the confederate who would give him from one to five electric shocks for each idea. One third of the subjects were induced to think of themselves as Dunne (the victor). and four for the lifth.402 PERRY AND PERRY METHOD Subjects One-hundred-eight male undergraduates enrolled in introductory psychology classes at the University of Queensland served as subjects. Each subject was then given one of six index cards each of which contained the instructions for one of the six identification x verbalization treatment conditions. the former. The study was ostensibly concerned with relationships between physiological variables and social learning situations involving the use of punishment. and two levels of covert verbalization. three for the fourth. However. and for their participation received partial credit toward their course requirements. The experimenter was blind as to which of these cards a given subject received but was aware of whether the subject had been assigned to hear the justified or the unjustified sound introduction. Five potential subjects refused to participate when they learned the experiment dealt with electric shock. four for the second. Procedure Nine subjects were randomly assigned to each of 12 cells in a 2 x 3 x 2 factorial design involving two levels ofjustification of observed aggression. is used here. the subject and an experimental confederate posing as another subject were directed by the experimenter (a male in his late twenties) to separate booths inside the experimental room. in order to control for the effects of covert role taking per se. Try to place yourselfin his shoes during the fight and react the way he would react to the fight. Kelly. The subject was designated. Two subjects who expressed a clear awareness of the experimental deception were eliminated and replaced by other students. The subjects were informed that the experiment would employ electric shocks which were mild and harmless. and another third were not given any specific instructions for identifying with a film character. Sham physiological recording devices were strapped to the subjects’ chests. to perform a “test of problem solving under stress. apparently arbitrarily. played by Kirk Douglas) in the film. The booths were open at the front but arranged so that the men could not see each other. When appropriate. an attempt was made to follow the procedures used by Turner and Berkowitz (1972). After removing the shock bracelet from the subject’s wrist. Each of the cards indicated that the film which they were about to see showed a championship boxing match in which Kirk Douglas plays a fighter named Kelly and his opponent is named Dunne. Instructions for subjects in the Dunne and Kelly groups read as follows: You are to think of yourself as the character named (Dunne. three levels of identification.” He had 5 min to think up five ideas for a promotional campaign to improve the popularity and sales of a recording artist.

The prize-fight scene from the movie The Champion was then introduced. RESULTS Number of Hits A 2 x 3 x 2 analysis of variance was performed on the number of button-presses.15. ” “Kiu him”. subjects were given a full explanation of the experimental deceptions and requested not to reveal anything about the procedure to other students. such as (“Hit him. the experimenter explained that it was now the confederate’s turn to think up five ideas for a promotional campaign for a petrol station. The mean number of button-presses for subjects in all experimental groups was 64. No effect in the analysis of variance approached statistical significance. When the him ended. this was a brief summary implying that Kelly deserved the beating he was about to get. the experimenter pretended to place the shock electrode to the confederate’s wrist. .IDENTIFICATION WITH FILM CHARACTERS 403 observing the film. subjects perceived Dunne strike Kelly this often. Dependent Measures The number of times each subject pressed the button during the film was automatically recorded. indicating that. and to assess reactions to the film and experimental tasks. Cell means for both measures are given in Table 1. The control subjects received no specific imagine-self instructions but were given instructions to press the button each time Dunne hit Kelly. Electric Shocks Similar 2 x 3 x 2 analyses of variance were performed on the number of shocks and duration of shock dependent measures. Each time you see (Dunne hit. Finally. For the one half of the subjects assigned to the justified aggression condition. Both the introduction and the audio portion of the lilm were presented over earphones. for verbalizing subjects in the Dunne and Kelly identification conditions the instruction card ended with the statement: Each time you press the button you are to make a self-verbalization similar to ones (Dunne. press the black button at the end of the cord. the summary implied that the beating was unjustified.” “0~“). Kelly) might be saying when he (delivers: receives) a blow. “Uh. The subject was then given a questionnaire designed to assess the effectiveness of the experimental manipulations. The dependent measures of aggression were the total number of shocks and the total duration of shocks given the confederate over the five trials. One half the subjects in each group were instructed to engage in covert verbalizations which were consistent with their identification instructions. take the brown switch connected to the white cord lying on the table and hold it in your hand. After a 2-min period during which the confederate was presumably thinking up his ideas. The confederate then read out five predetermined ideas for the subject’s evaluation. Kelly hit by) the other boxer. Thus. For the rest of the subjects. Control subjects in the verbalization condition were told to say the word “Now” to themselves each time they pressed the button. on the average. and it would be the subject’s job to evaluate his partner’s performance.

Ol.~ < . the major effect of requesting subjects to verbalize was to eliminate the aggressive aftereffects of identification with the aggressor. p c. although the main effect for identification approached significance.22 6.Ol. On the other hand. t comparisons made between verbalization and no verbalization cell means at each level of identification condition revealed that only for subjects identifying with Dunne was there a significant difference between verbalization and no verbalization conditions.56 4. Durations in the latter two conditions were not significantly different.10. F (2.68 10. there were no significant differences among the three identification conditions. subjects identifying with Dunne delivered shocks of longer duration than did the subjects either identifying with Kelly.96 of aggression conditions are combined. p < .24. p < . the effects of identification were examined at each level of verbalization by t tests. when not asked to verbalize. F (2.00 10. p < . t (96) = 2. 96) = 4.05. t (96) = 2.89 9. Clearly.38. 96) = 2.73.404 MEAN SHOCK PERRY AND PERRY TABLE 1 MEASURES CLASSIFIED BY IDENTIFICATION AND VERBALIZATION CONDITION Identificand Measure Total shocks Covert verbalization No verbalization Total duration (set) Covert verbalization No verbalization Winner Loser Control 11.51. .02.02. 96) = 4. p < .26 4. p < . or the subjects not identifying with a film character.21 3. When the men had been asked to verbalize. In addition. f (96) = 2. and contrary to prediction.Ol. t (96) = 2. or not identifying with an aggressive character. t (96) = 2.78.19 Note: The data from the two justification The analysis on number of shocks yielded only a significant main effect of identification with film character. 10. Subjects identifying with Dunne delivered more shocks to their victims than did either the subjects identifying with Kelly. The sole effect reaching statistical reliability in the analysis on total duration of shock was the interaction between identification and verbalization conditions.10.17 12.89 5. F (2.28 4.Ol. Subjects in the latter two groups did not significantly differ in number of shocks.69. p < . The three overall means for this effect were compared by two-tailed t tests. Because of the significant interaction.98.

2) or (p < . A separate item asked subjects to rate how disappointed (1) or pleased (7) they were by the outcome of the tilm. interestingly. indicated that subjects’ attitudes were influenced by this manipulation in the expected direction & for justified = 2.6). F (2. Because of the modifying impact which covert verbalization exerted on the effects of identification with the aggressor. p < . with the mean for subjects identifying with Dunne @ = 2. Subjects were asked to rate which character should have won the fight. Subjects in the Dunne and Kelly groups were asked to rate how well they felt they succeeded in identifying with their identificand.34.IDENTIFICATION WITH FILM CHARACTERS 405 Questionnaire Measures Subjects’ responses to each of 14 questionnaire items were subjected to an analysis of variance involving the three experimental variables as factors. Clearly.06. x for unjustified = significantly lower (p < .91.4).96) = . The main effect for identification condition was also significant. on a scale from 1 (Dunne) to 7 (Kelly).96) = 29. appeared to strengthen it for Kelly subjects). verbalization appeared to weaken subjects’ reported ability to identify with Dunne. First. p < .05. F (1.Ol by t test) than that for either Kelly (2 = 4.9) than in the justified group (x = 4. p < . Thus. attention was paid to the result of any questionnaire analysis yielding a significant (or near significant) effect involving the verbalization factor.8.68. A highly significant main effect of justification of aggression. indicated more disappointment for subjects in the unjustified group (2 = 2. A significant main effect of justification of aggression F (1. These results suggested two conclusions. derived from the fact that verbalization instructions clearly weakened identification for the subjects identifying with Dunne (but. less resentful about having to give electric shocks to a partner. F (1.~ < .OOl. p < . the identification and justification of aggression variables successfully influenced subjects’ attitudes in meaningful ways. Only those items which produced a finding relevant to these considerations are included here. 64) = 4. and then to assess the effects of covert verbalization instructions on subjects’ reactions to the experimental tasks.%) = 5. Compared to the others. The results of these analyses are examined first to determine the effectiveness of the identification and justification of aggression manipulations. F (1.9). Second. several results suggested that verbalization served generally to reduce subjects’ reported hostility toward the experiment and participation in it. 96) = 24. F (164) = 3. The latter two means were not significantly different. only subjects identifying with Dunne were significantly different from control subjects in stated preference for a winner.05 by t test) control subjects (x = 3.Ol.OOl. verbalizing subjects felt it less unfair to be requested to identify with someone participating in a brutal boxing match. A significant interaction between identificand and verbalization condition.

” data. In particular. subjects in the Dunne condition pressed their button each time they saw him deliver a blow. Thus. Second.05. we felt it was appropriate to focus the attention of subjects in the Kelly group on instances of Kelly’s victimization rather than on occasions of his aggressiveness. Interpretations of the findings from the Turner and Berkowitz (1972) and the present investigations rest on the assumption that subjects assigned to “identify” with a film character become emotionally involved with the character. F (1. p < . It might be argued.~ < . In contrast. Although attentional explanations can probably be ruled out.73. . however. it is likely that the Kelly subjects made fewer vicarious aggressive responses during the lilm than did those in the Dunne group. DISCUSSION The results of this study show that identification with aggressive film characters does not inevitably lead to increased subsequent aggression in the observer. hating with him. Nevertheless. however. 96) = 4. If control subjects were paying less attention to Dunne than those requested to identify with him they might well have reported fewer instances of his hitting behavior. that it is not emotional involvement but rather selective attention to a given film character which mediates effects attribThis argument receives no support from the uted to “identification. Since a major aim of the study was to compare identification with the victim to that with the victor. rooting for him. although this was the case only when the aggression was perceived as justified.08. subjects identifying with Kelly were instructed to make a button-pressing response each time they saw their identificand hit by his opponent. interaction.06. vicarious aggression was diminished. as there were no significant differences among groups with respect to how often they perceived Dunne hit Kelly (button-pressing data). other interpretations merit consideration. First. suffering with him. and less reluctant to give the shocks. by requesting these subjects to be vigilant for hits against Kelly their attentiveness to hits delivered by him was probably reduced. it is by no means clear whether it is emotional or cognitive reactions (or both) to one’s identificand which mediate effects. Aggressive consequences of identification were limited to those instances where subjects identified with the winner of the fight and thus saw their identificand incur reinforcement for aggressive responding. Although we are inclined to interpret the differences in aggression between subjects identifying with Dunne and those identifying with Kelly in terms of differences in the vicarious consequences for aggressive responding. the subjects identifying with Kelly observed their identificand make fewer aggressive responses (approximately two-thirds as many) than did the subjects in the Dunne condition.406 PERRY AND PERRY 3.

IDENTIFICATION WITH FILM CHARACTERS 407 One might expect. Coates and Hartup (1969). as yet. Explicitly requesting subjects to verbalize in linguistic form would interfere with this process. Not only did verbalization instructions lead to shorter durations of electric shock given the confederate but also to a general lessening of hostility toward participation in the experiment (questionnaire results). Presumably. for example. The results of the present study also highlight the dangers inherent in assuming that adult subjects are doing one thing (e. verbalizing aggressively) when instructed to do another (e. A startling aspect of the results of this study concerns the modifying impact which verbalization instructions had on identification with the film aggressor. verbalization instructions interfered with the children’s natural attentional and covert rehearsal processes. on occasion. Possibly. instructions to make covert aggressive verbalizations interfered with subjects’ ability to make the sorts of vicarious aggressive responses which would serve to strengthen their own subsequent aggression.g. Aggressive aftereffects were clearly eliminated when subjects identifying with Dunne were requested to make an aggressive verbalization each time they saw him hit Kelly. This hypothesis that verbalization instructions may. that when one is instructed to identify with the ultimately victorious. press a . for example. the rule that “aggression pays” becomes cognitively salient.. inappropriate to suggest that covert aggressive verbalization during the observation of filmed violence mediates increased subsequent aggressive responding. these findings are indeed puzzling and point to several difficulties associated with the facilitative verbalization hypothesis. when they see him strike a target they may experience aggressive excitement accompanied by exclamation in nonlinguistic form. Results from the questionnaire analyses indicated that subjects asked to identify with Dunne reported more difficulty in identifying with him if they had been asked to verbalize. it is clear that it is. which in turn helps to encourage aggression. It is also possible that under natural viewing conditions subjects identifying with a film character do not react to a model’s aggressive responses in subvocal linguistic form.g. interfere with effective transmittal of modeling stimuli has been suggested by previous investigators.. Regardless of the exact mechanisms involved. Instead. Since we had anticipated that the effect of aggressive verbalization would be to strengthen aggressive identification. found that specifically requesting 7-year-old children to verbalize out loud the actions of a tilm model who was displaying aggressive as well as other behaviors led to poorer subsequent recall of the model’s responses than simply letting the children watch passively. The externally imposed verbalization instructions may have interfered with the subjects’ natural modes of responding to and encoding the observed violence.

W. 66. Turner and Berkowitz (1972) were very probably mistaken when they labeled their button-pressing response a “Think Hit” manipulation.e. it may be premature to conclude that effects of aggressive identification are independent of the motives of one’s identificand. Indeed. Loew. Apparently. between aggressive verbalization and subsequent overt aggressive behavior. 556-562. Berkowitz. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Because of this problem.g. that rewarding subjects for hostile verbalizations leads to increases in subsequent behavioral aggression (Lovaas. W. 1972). It is surprising that the present results did not even reveal a main effect of this variable since several previous investigations employing a similar manipulation have demonstrated more aggression when the displayed violence is justified (e. Parke. While our justification manipulation may have been strong enough to affect subjects’ verbal reports.. REFERENCES Bandura. In the present study. Effects of fiIm violence on inhibitions against subsequent aggression. this variable bore no relationship to subjects’ aggression. B. the level of shocks given to subjects and ostensibly given by them to their partners was low. & Hartup. for example. Thus. and the issue deserves further study. The preceding discussion is not meant to imply that there is a lack of relationship. and/or rehearse aggressive responses performed by social models are particularly vuinerable to externally imposed instructions to verbalize. 1972). 405-412. 1%3. Several studies with both children and adults have shown. Meyer. the act of inflicting pain) or whether they reflect task evaluation independent of intent to injure. 1%9. 1963. encode. Ewall. Age and verbalization in observational learning.. 1965. the natural strategies subjects employ to attend to. The question may be raised whether our shock data reflect aggressive behavior as it is usually considered (i. & Rawlings. Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. E. L. A. 1961. it apparently was too weak to affect their overt behavior. Coates. Although several signs on the questionnaire measures indicated a degree of success of the justification of aggression manipulation.408 PERRY AND PERRY button each time they observe an aggressive response). we suggest that future researchers guarantee the subject’s belief that the shocks he is giving a partner are at least minimally discomforting him. 1967. & Slaby. 585-595. 1. Developmental Psychology. It appears that the interference effect of aggressive verbalization is restricted to those instances in which the subject is requested to verbalize while observing an aggressive modeling display... and no attempt was made to gauge shocks to a pain threshold individually determined for each subject. 1. Berkowitz & Rawlings. or even an inverse relationship. .

5. 1961. D. Loew. Lovaas. 1967. 0.. & Slaby. Interaction between verbal and nonverbal behavior. C. 329-336. L. P. 335-351. Child Development. A. C. 21. 1972.. I. 256-264. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. & Berkowitz. W.243-248. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. . Ewall.. 21-29. Effects of viewing justified and unjustified real film violence on aggressive behavior.23. T.IDENTIFICATION WITH FILM CHARACTERS 409 of a hostile attitude and its relationship to aggressive behavior. 23. R. Hostile ahd helpful verbalizations as regulators of 1972. and Social Psychology. nonverbal aggression. G. 1972. W. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. R. Parke. Identification with film aggression (Covert Role Taking) and reactions to film violence. Turner. Acquisition Meyer. Journal of Personality 32.