Does Finding Media Violence Funny Mean You Have A Dark Personality?

Psychologist Craig Anderson discusses the link between finding humor in violent movies and video games and dark personalities.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 16, 2022

A new study published in the Psychology of Popular Media shows a strong connection between high consumption of violent media and dark aspects of personality. The research paves the way to predict how this connection might lead to actual violence and aggressive behavior.

I recently spoke to Craig Anderson, a faculty member at Iowa State University and one of the authors of the research, to understand this connection better. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of media violence and its relation to dark personality traits?

I've been studying aggressive and violent behavior — including the effects of high exposure to media violence — for several decades. These studies have included a wide range of behavioral, emotional, and cognitive outcomes. Many different graduate students, undergraduate students, and Ph.D. colleagues around the world have greatly contributed to the many studies and publications resulting from this research.

One subset of our media violence studies has addressed the question of desensitization to violence, potentially caused (in part) by excessive exposure to entertainment media violence.

Some of the early desensitization studies were inspired by the observation that many people in movie theater audiences laugh at violent on-screen scenes, even scenes that were not intended to be funny. In a sense, one can say that such people appear to be desensitized to images and scenes of violence.

Our most recent article on this topic was inspired by undergraduate honors student Sabrina Ash and graduate student Johnie Allen (now, Ph.D.). In fact, both of them contributed much more to the two studies and the resulting article than did I, which is why I am the last author on the article.

Dark personality traits have been of interest to aggression/violence scholars for at least two decades. Sabrina and Johnie noticed that there was a gap in the research literature concerning traits of people who find humor in entertainment media. An obvious place to start was to see whether dark personality traits predict who will find entertainment media humorous.

So, they proposed a pair of studies to investigate this question. We also decided to include standard measures of media violence exposure to see whether such exposure also might be related to seeing humor in violent entertainment media.

Could you briefly take us through the seven dark personality traits that your study focused on?

Technically, the Dark Triad is now thought of as the Dark Tetrad.

It has four elements:

  1. Narcissism, which involves grandiosity, entitlement, and self-centeredness
  2. Machiavellianism, which involves cynicism and manipulative social tactics
  3. Psychopathy, which involves callousness, impulsivity, and antisocial behavior
  4. Sadism, which is the trait-like tendency to enjoy harming others

We also measured three other commonly assessed personality traits that have been associated with antisocial behavior:

  1. Moral disengagement, a trait-like tendency of some people to "turn off" their moral standards to avoid the consequences of their own immoral behavior, such as guilt or shame
  2. Spitefulness, which is the trait-like tendency to harm oneself in order to harm other people
  3. Schadenfreude, which involves finding pleasure in another person's misfortune or pain.

As you might guess, these 7 traits tend to correlate positively with each other.

What methodology did you adopt for your study and what would you say was your most important finding?

Both studies used a cross-sectional correlation design. That is, our research participants filled out surveys that measured the predictor variables and the outcome variable (amount of humor found in media violence).

Note that such cross-sectional designs are good at testing whether or not there are significant associations between predictor and outcome variables, but not so good at determining whether or not a predictor variable causes changes in the outcome variable.

In our view, the most important findings from the two studies were:

  • High exposure to entertainment media violence was significantly related to finding lots of humor in violent entertainment media, a type of desensitization effect
  • Moral disengagement was positively associated with both high media violence exposure and finding lots of humor in violent entertainment media
  • 6 of the 7 dark traits were positively associated with finding lots of humor in violent entertainment media (only narcissism appeared unrelated)

In short, these results accomplished two tasks:

  1. They confirm theory and prior studies concerning desensitization effects.
  2. Second, they set the stage for new studies that are more specifically designed to test the extent to which these associations are causal

What advice would you have for someone who might be noticing such behavioral tendencies in a loved one? Is there a point where finding media violence funny might become a cause of concern or a threat?

At this point in time, there is very little research linking finding humor in media violence to later real world aggression and violence.

The state of the research literature does show that a fascination with weapons and violent incidents, and high exposure to media violence, does predict both mild and extreme acts of violence. But, that is not the same thing as finding humor in violent entertainment media. Future research might find such a link, of course.

Having said that, parents of children from age 5 to 21 should be concerned if those children find violence that they see in all types of media violence, including news reports of real-world violence, to be funny and not distressful.

That is a good sign that media habits need to be changed, and that the family needs to do a better job of teaching children prosocial family values rather than antisocial ones.

Note that superhero violence also is harmful to children's development of appropriate social values, behavior, and feeling of well-being.

Is it possible to overcome such an association with media violence going against one's own personality? In other words, is finding media violence funny something that needs to be 'fixed'?

Three points seem especially relevant here:

  1. Most personality traits are changeable to at least some degree. Personality traits are to a great extent molded from one's life experiences.
  2. The childhood to early adulthood years are when personality traits change the most, although it also is true that personality traits change somewhat from life experiences even in late adulthood.
  3. At the moment finding humor in violent media has not been sufficiently studied to conclusively say that it needs to be fixed

In a sense, our two studies have just scratched the surface, and provide a new tool for assessing perceived humorousness of media violence. This tool could be helpful to researchers who want to study the phenomenon.

If video games and films can reveal dark personality traits, do you think they can also be used to alter them (say by consuming different genres and types of media)?

Yes! Research from experts in media effects, as well as experts from many of the psychological and other behavioral sciences, make it clear that much socialization of children, adolescents, and even adults comes through electronic media, and through older forms of telling stories.

Within the media effects domain, there is very good evidence that video games with prosocial themes can, over time, lead to improved socialization of ways of thinking, emotional development, and appropriate behaviors.

Such games also can decrease the likelihood of later antisocial behavior.

Again, please note that some supposedly prosocial games, especially games in which the "hero" destroys the bad-person enemies, are actually harmful to players. The main reason is that what those games actually teach is that physical violence is good and the first thing to try when faced with an interpersonal dispute.

Truly prosocial games can teach players how to think of nonviolent solutions to conflict and therefore result in better interpersonal relationships.