“It is our clinical judgement, in all kinds of behaviour disorders and personality difficulties of children that comic books play a part”

Seduction of the Innocent.
Frederick Wertham (1953)


Exposure to violent media appears to increase aggressive behaviour, thoughts and feelings in adolescents and young adults (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). There’s voluminous research on the effects of violent media and the tendency towards increased violent behaviour and thought but there’s not much research on reading materials such as comic books (Kirsh & Olczak, 2000; Potenza et al 1996). Comic books have historically been equated with misbehaviour. In the 1950’s Frederick Wertham’s classic “Seduction of the Innocent” laid all of the blame for juvenile delinquency on comic books. This theory still has its supporters. It’s thought that the impact of comic books is heightened because they reach their target young audience at the crucial development moment when socio-spatial frameworks are being formulated (Bushman, 1998). This study seeks to examine whether or not the theory has any validity.

Aggression is defined as any behaviour directed toward another individual with the immediate intent to cause harm. Violence is aggression that has extreme harm as its goal. This means that all violence is aggression but many instances of aggression are not violent (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). Violent media then is defined as media that depicts intentional attempts by individuals to inflict harm on others (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). The widely accepted General Aggression Model (GAM) highlights 2 factors which are the basis of aggression; Personological factors (such as personality traits) and Situational Factors (such as exposure to violent media). It’s the interaction of these factors that’s believed to be the cause of media related violence (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). Individuals high in Trait hostility after exposure to violent media interactively influence the accessibility of aggressive thoughts (Coyne, Archer & Elsea, 2003). This temporary increase in the accessibility of aggressive networks is called priming. The link between media violence and inferring hostile intent to actions of another, even when their motives are not clear, is due to biases with Social Information Processing (Bond, Bauer& Wingrove, 2004; Dodge & Crick, 1990). It’s thought that repeated exposure to violent material leads to distortion of social cues and misinterpretation of signals from the environment (Dodge, 1980). According to Dodge’s SIP model, when frustrated or hurt a series of cognitive steps are enacted. First the subject incorrectly encodes social cues. This leads to a misinterpretation of these cues, which in turn leads to a negative problem-solving strategy. This process culminates in the enactment of negative aggressive behaviour (Dodge, 1980).

Kirsch & Olczak suggest that Dodge’s SIP model makes explicit the link between violent comic books and aggression. In a series of studies they examine the effects of reading violent comic books on individuals’ levels of aggression. It’s these works that have been replicated for this experiment. In their first study “Violent comic books and perceptions of ambiguous provocation situations” they investigate the effects of reading Extremely Violent Comic Books (EVCB) or Mildly Violent Comic Books (MVCB) on the interpretation of ambiguous provocation situations (Kirsh & Olczak, 2000). In the scenarios an aggressive incident occurs to a child but the intent of the provocateur is unclear. A typical scenario may detail an incident where a child is pushed into the mud or is hit with a ball (Kirsch & Olczak, 2000). After reading the stories subjects answer questions about the intent of the provocateur, potential retaliation against them and about the emotional state of all concerned. What the study finds is that readers of EVCB suggest more harmful intent and want more retaliation than readers of MVCB. A hypothesis concerning emotional motivation of the provocateur is only partially supported since male readers suggest more negative content than females. It seems as if EVCB leads to a short term HAB in males but not in females. This result could be due to the nature of the dependant variable. Since overt, physical aggression is favoured by males and relational aggression by females any difference in results could be due to a gender specific response bias (Anderson & Bushman, 2002).
In their next study Kirsh & Olczak look at “Violent Comic books and judgements of relational aggression” (2002a). This study uses the same methodology as the first, except instead of using ambiguous scenarios where the provocateur uses overt aggression this study uses ambiguous scenarios that deal with acts of relational aggression. Relational aggression, which tends to be favoured by females, is generally done through social exclusion, (e.g. not inviting someone to a party) or social manipulation (e.g. spreading rumours) (Kirsch & Olczak, 2002a). The results show that subjects like and found Non-Violent Comic Books (NVCB) funnier than EVCB. They also show that EVCB readers suggest more retaliation, more negative emotional state and more hostile intent than readers of NVCB. This suggests that reading violent comic books affects Social Information Processing. Reading violent comic books appears to influence judgements involving intention, retaliation and emotion in ambiguous provocation scenarios. There are none of the anticipated gender differences in perception of relational provocation situations evident. It seems as if the comic books influenced males and females perceptions of relational aggression similarly (Kirsh & Olczak, 2002a).

The most recent comic book study by Kirsch & Olczak is their 2002b paper “The Effects of Extremely Violent Comic Books on Social Information Processing”. This is the most extensive of all three studies. The ambiguous scenarios in this study are a combination of examples of both overt and relational aggression. The methodology remains the same but the statistical analysis is more complex. The results show gender differences in the perceptions of comic books. It’s found that females like NVCB and males like EVCB. NVCB are rated as funnier than the EVCB and females find NVCB funnier than EVCB. Females like NVCB more than males and males like EVCB more than the females do. Females find the NVCB more interesting and males find more interest in the EVCB. In the trials with the overtly aggressive scenarios males are found to react more aggressively than females and readers of EVCB are found to respond more aggressively than readers of NVCB. In the relational aggression scenarios women produce more negative responding than men and readers of EVCB are more negative than NVCB readers. Follow up comparisons find that females reading EVCB are more aggressive than females who read NVCB. Trait hostility is also significantly related to aggressive responses and follow up tests indicate that individuals high in trait hostility give aggressive responses to overt but not to relational scenarios. This contradicts the earlier study that showed trait hostility was related to relational aggression (Kirsh & Olczak, 2002a)
The ultimate conclusion of their collected work is that processing of overt and relational ambiguous situations is affected by gender, trait hostility and environmental factors. These studies underscore present theories and emphasise the complex role situational and individual differences play in determining aggressive behaviour (Kirsch & Olczak, 2002b). Examining the effects of EVCB on SIP is the purpose of this experiment. This study uses the same methodology as the three described Kirsch & Olczak experiments. Since a whole slew of data is going to be collected the statistical analysis will be of the form used in the 2002b paper which examined both overt and relational aggressive scenarios.
A problem with the original work was that none of the subjects had any experience of comic books. This study thus seeks to explore the murky hinterlands of the interaction between violent comic books and serious comic book fans. The stereotypical comics reader is the geeky continuity obsessed fan or “fanboy”. It’s argued that such stigma is about the relationship between the stereotype and the attribute (Lopes, 2006). Thus, the first hypothesis to be tested is that because of their long term exposure, fans of comic books are different from non-comic book readers. This difference will be apparent through a comparison of the personality factors of the two populations. It has also been suggested that continual short-term exposure to violent media may lead to the long-term development of aggressive scripts (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). Since reading comics over a long time leads to increased exposure to EVCB and a potential long term exposure effect it’s hypothesised that as the length of comic book reading increases there will be an increase in aggressive responding.

The perceptions formed by those reading comic books are interconnected with their feelings and their levels of aggression. Work examining other media has found that the biggest predictor of adolescent aggressive intent was liking TV violence rather than simply viewing it (Walker & Morley, 1991). Earlier studies found interactions between perception of the stimulus and gender. This finding was corroborated by other research that found that boys prefer fairy tales with violence and females prefer romantic fairy tales (Bogle, 2004). Therefore it’s hypothesised that there will be gender differences in the perceptions of the comic books. Although both sexes will perceive the same level of violence, males will like and be more interested in EVCB than females and females will like and be more interested in NVCB than males.

The next hypotheses to be tested are the ones proposed by Kirsch & Olczak (2002b). By testing the same hypotheses and be carrying out the same tests a direct comparison can be made and judgements as to the validity of the experiment can be inferred. It’s hypothesised that individuals exposed to EVCB will show evidence of a biased SIP and respond more aggressively than subjects exposed to NVCB do. Males will show higher responses to scenarios involving overt aggression and females will show higher responses to scenarios involving relational aggression. All of the previous studies have shown a link between Trait Hostility and aggressive responding. As Trait Hostility increases so does negative responses. Therefore it’s hypothesised that as Trait Hostility increases participants will ascribe more hostile intent, suggest more retaliation and attribute more negative emotion to provocateurs in the ambiguous provocation scenarios. Individuals high in trait hostility will provide most negative responses after exposure to EVCB and these effects should be greatest for males reading scenarios involving overt scenarios and for females responding to relational scenarios.

The study seeks to examine comic books. It considers the short-term effects on readers and potential long-term effect on their users. It seeks to look at potential gender differences in the perceptions and preferences of particular comic books and at how they bias SIP towards aggressive responding. The theory predicts that these effects should be greatest for individuals high in trait hostility, for males responding to scenarios featuring overt aggression and for females responding to scenarios featuring acts of relational aggression.