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How 'bad' video may lead to pro-social behavior

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Researchers suggest 'bad' video may lead to pro-social behavior in the real world. But how can viewing so-called 'bad' video encourage holistic, healthy, and compassionate actions? New evidence from recent recent at the University at Buffalo suggests heinous behavior played out in a virtual environment can lead to players’ increased sensitivity toward the moral codes they violated. The study, “Being Bad in a Video Game Can Make Us More Morally Sensitive,” appeared online ahead of print on June 20, 2014 in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

That's the surprising finding of a study led by Matthew Grizzard, PhD, assistant professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Communication, and co-authored by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Texas, Austin. “Rather than leading players to become less moral,” Grizzard says, according to the June 26, 2014 news release by Pat Donovan, 'Bad' video game behavior increases players' moral sensitivity, “this research suggests that violent video-game play may actually lead to increased moral sensitivity. This may, as it does in real life, provoke players to engage in voluntary behavior that benefits others.”

Grizzard points out that several recent studies, including this one, have found that committing immoral behaviors in a video game elicits feelings of guilt in players who commit them. The current study found such guilt can lead players to be more sensitive to the moral issues they violated during game play. Other studies have established that in real life scenarios, guilt evoked by immoral behavior in the “real-world” elicits pro-social behaviors in most people. “We suggest that pro-social behavior also may result when guilt is provoked by virtual behavior,” explains Matthew Grizzard, according to the news release. Grizzard is an assistant professor of communication, University at Buffalo.

Researchers induced guilt in participants by having them play a video game where they violated two of five moral domains: care/harm, fairness/reciprocity, in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity/sanctity

“We found that after a subject played a violent video game, they felt guilt and that guilt was associated with greater sensitivity toward the two particular domains they violated — those of care/harm and fairness/reciprocity,” Grizzard says, according to the news release. The first includes behaviors marked by cruelty, abuse and lack of compassion, and the second, by injustice or the denial of the rights of others.

“Our findings suggest that emotional experiences evoked by media exposure can increase the intuitive foundations upon which human beings make moral judgments,” Grizzard explains, according to the news release. “This is particularly relevant for video-game play, where habitual engagement with that media is the norm for a small, but considerably important group of users.”

Grizzard observes that in life and in game, specific definitions of moral behavior in each domain will vary from culture to culture and situation to situation

“For instance,” he says, according to the news release, “an American who played a violent game ‘as a terrorist’ would likely consider his avatar’s unjust and violent behavior — violations of the fairness/reciprocity and harm/care domains — to be more immoral than when he or she performed the same acts in the role of a ‘UN peacekeeper.’” In conducting the study, researchers combined a model of intuitive morality and exemplars representing current advances in moral psychology with media-effects theories to explain how mediated or indirect experiences influence individuals’ moral judgments.

The study involved 185 subjects who were randomly assigned to either a guilt-inducing condition — in which they played a shooter game as a terrorist or were asked to recall real-life acts that induced guilt — or a control condition — shooter game play as a UN soldier and the recollection of real-life acts that did not induce guilt.

After completing the video game or the memory recall, participants completed a three-item guilt scale and a 30-item moral foundations questionnaire designed to assess the importance to them of the five moral domains cited above. Correlations were calculated among the variables in the study, with separate correlation matrices calculated for the video-game conditions and the memory-recall conditions. The study found significant positive correlations between video-game guilt and the moral foundations violated during game play.

The study was co-authored by Ron Tamborini, PhD, professor, Department of Communication, Michigan State University; Robert J. Lewis, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Advertising and Public Relations, University of Texas, Austin; and Lu Wang, a former graduate student in the Department of Communication at Michigan State.

In May, a study by Tamborini, Grizzard, Lewis and three other authors published in Journal of Communication described mechanisms involved in exposure to entertainment and moral judgment processes.

For children, stress can go a long way

A little bit provides a platform for learning, adapting and coping. But a lot of it -- chronic, toxic stress like poverty, neglect and physical abuse -- can have lasting negative impacts. A team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers recently showed these kinds of stressors, experienced in early life, might be changing the parts of developing children's brains responsible for learning, memory and the processing of stress and emotion, according to the new study, "Behavior Problems After Early Life Stress: Contributions of the Hippocampus and Amygdala," published online ahead of print on May 22, 2014 in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Early life stress can leave lasting impacts on the brain. Different forms of early life stress, such as child maltreatment or poverty, impacted the size of two important brain regions: the hippocampus and amygdala, according to new University of Wisconsin–Madison research. Children who experienced such stress had small amygdalae and hippocampai, which was related to behavioral problems in these same individuals.

For children, stress can go a long way. A little bit provides a platform for learning, adapting and coping. But a lot of it — chronic, toxic stress like poverty, neglect and physical abuse — can have lasting negative impacts.

A team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers recently showed these kinds of stressors, experienced in early life, might be changing the parts of developing children's brains responsible for learning, memory and the processing of stress and emotion. These changes may be tied to negative impacts on behavior, health, employment and even the choice of romantic partners later in life. The study could be important for public policy leaders, economists and epidemiologists, among others, says study lead author and recent University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) Ph.D. graduate Jamie Hanson.

"We haven't really understood why things that happen when you're 2, 3, 4 years old stay with you and have a lasting impact," says Seth Pollak, co-leader of the study and UW-Madison professor of psychology, according to the June 27, 2014 news release, "Early life stress can leave lasting impacts on the brain." Yet, early life stress has been tied before to depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, and a lack of educational and employment success, says Pollak, who is also director of the UW Waisman Center's Child Emotion Research Laboratory.

"Given how costly these early stressful experiences are for society … unless we understand what part of the brain is affected, we won't be able to tailor something to do about it," he says, according to the news release. For the study, the team recruited 128 children around age 12 who had experienced either physical abuse, neglect early in life or came from low socioeconomic status households.

Researchers conducted extensive interviews with the children and their caregivers, documenting behavioral problems and their cumulative life stress

They also took images of the children's brains, focusing on the hippocampus and amygdala, which are involved in emotion and stress processing. Those images were compared to similar children from middle-class households who had not been maltreated. Hanson and the team outlined by hand each child's hippocampus and amygdala and calculated their volumes. Both structures are very small, especially in children (the word amygdala is Greek for almond, reflecting its size and shape in adults), and Hanson and Pollak say the automated software measurements from other studies may be prone to error.

Indeed, their hand measurements found that children who experienced any of the three types of early life stress had smaller amygdalas than children who had not. Children from low socioeconomic status households and children who had been physically abused also had smaller hippocampal volumes. Putting the same images through automated software showed no effects.

Behavioral problems and increased cumulative life stress were also linked to smaller hippocampus and amygdala volumes

Why early life stress may lead to smaller brain structures is unknown, says Hanson, now a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University's Laboratory for NeuroGenetics, but a smaller hippocampus is a demonstrated risk factor for negative outcomes. The amygdala is much less understood and future work will focus on the significance of these volume changes.

"For me, it's an important reminder that as a society we need to attend to the types of experiences children are having," Pollak says, according to the news release. "We are shaping the people these individuals will become." But the findings, Hanson and Pollak say, are just markers for neurobiological change; a display of the robustness of the human brain, the flexibility of human biology. They aren't a crystal ball to be used to see the future. "Just because it's in the brain doesn't mean it's destiny," says Hanson, according to the news release.

This study, according to its abstract, suggests early life stress (also known as ELS) may shape the development of brain areas involved with emotion processing and regulation in similar ways. Differences in the amygdala and hippocampus may be a shared diathesis for later negative outcomes related to early life stress (ELS). The diathesis-stress model is a psychological theory that attempts to explain behavior as a predispositional vulnerability together with stress from life. The word 'diathesis' refers to a hereditary or constitutional predisposition to a disease or other disorder, for example, a predisposition.

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