Alcohol and video games might seem unrelated, but each figures into many people's holidays. There's a lot of drinking, and games are popular gifts. They have something else in common too - the capacity to nudge people into aggressive behavior, something none of us needs this or any time of year.
Bruce Bartholow, assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has been investigating triggers for aggressive behavior. In his look at alcohol and violent video games, he found connections beyond what most studies have shown.
The alcohol study was about memory associations. Everyone knows that drinking increases the likelihood some people will act aggressively, but Bartholow's work found that even looking at a magazine advertisement for alcohol can have a negative effect on some people.
Bartholow had test subjects fill out surveys that included things they associated with alcohol.
They were shown photographs, some of which were alcohol-related, such as a beer bottle. After each image was flashed, subjects were shown a word that was aggression-related or neutral, or just a string of letters. They had to press a key quickly to say whether the letters on the screen constituted a word or not.
Subjects who connected alcohol to violence in their surveys were quickest to identify violence-related words after being flashed an alcohol-related photo.
The responses showed their brains were primed for aggression by the alcohol-related images.
In a second experiment, subjects were told they were evaluating advertisements. Some were shown alcohol ads and the rest were shown other kinds of ads.
They were all asked to read a paragraph about a person involved in a series of behaviors that might or might not be considered aggressive. They were asked to characterize the person.
People who had seen the alcohol ads rated the person as more hostile than people who had viewed other ads. And people who believe alcohol leads to aggression gave the highest ratings for hostility.
Bartholow said the tests suggest "the mere sight of alcohol brings aggression-related thoughts to mind."
In his research on video games, Bartholow figured out that the lowering of aversion to violence that some thought was a temporary effect is actually lasting.
In other studies, people play violent games and then are tested, so all you can say is that there is an immediate effect. You couldn't tell if it would last.
Bartholow and his associates sought out people who played the games often and people who didn't and had them fill out questionnaires about their game play. They showed the 39 young men a series of images such as a man holding a gun to another man's head (violent), a man riding a bicycle (neutral) and a dead dog (negative, but not violent).
The researchers measured the P300 brainwave, which grows more active with exposure to violent and unpleasant images to which most people are averse.
Participants who routinely play violent video games showed less P300 response to the violent images than people who didn't. Their brains weren't saying, "That's awful."
Bartholow did a second test in which the subjects were told they were playing a computer game. They had a button that could punish their opponent with a loud noise. The winner of each round got to decide how loud and how long the noise would blast.
Really there was just a computer on the other end of the game.
The lower the P300 waves, the more aggressively subjects behaved. They weren't empathizing with the opponent.
I asked if some of the gamers were aggressive to begin with, but Bartholow said they'd screened people for that and it had little effect on test outcomes.
He also said some games, such as "Space Invaders," didn't have the negative effect. The culprits were first-person shooters in which the player is using a weapon against people or people-like creatures. And content was more important than frequency.
"I have a son who is 9 years old, and he plays video games. We just make sure he doesn't play any of the violent ones," Bartholow said. "Parents need to be very careful, especially with younger kids, about the content of the games they are allowed to play."
You have to watch what you put into your brain.