Physiological Desensitization and Judgments About Female Victims of Violence



    1. Daniel Linz (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, 1985) is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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    1. Edward Donnerstein (Ph.D., Florida State University, 1972) is Professor and Chair of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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    1. Steven M. Adams (M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1986) is a law student at Stanford Law School. The authors would like to thank David Bordwell, Vance Kepley, and Thomas Streeter for comments on an earlier draft of this article; Brian Cutler and Professor Steven Penrod for their assistance with statistical analyses; and Leonard Boodry, Andy Sultze, and Zack Wagman for their assistance in the laboratory. This research was supported by National Institute of Mental Health Grant MH40894 and National Science Foundation Grant BNS 8216772 to the first two authors.
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Earlier published studies have indicated that exposure to filmed violence against women leads to decreased perceptions of violence, systematic reductions in emotional reactions, reduction in self-reported physiological arousal to the violence in the films, and a tendency for subjects exposed to the violence to judge a victim of a sexual assault presented in a more realistic context more harshly. The present study was designed to measure physiological desensitizatian (heart rate) and to investigate the relationships between this measure and other cognitive, affective, and attitudinal components of the desensitization process. Subjects were either exposed to a two-hour videotape portraying violence against women or to exciting, nonviolent material (i.e., auto races, nonviolent sex). Following this, all subjects were exposed to two brief clips of violence perpetrated by a man against a women. During these clips, all subjects’ heart rates were monitored. Afterwards mood reactions and perceptions of the perpetrators and victims depicted in the dependent measure clips were measured. The results indicated that heart rates for subjects exposed to the violent videotape were lower during the final 90 seconds of each violent dependent measure film clip than controls. Although the violence-viewing subjects experienced no change in moods, control subjects experienced significant increases in hostility, anxiety, and depression during the dependent measure clips. Subjects in the violence-viewing condition attributed less injury to the victims but greater responsibility to the perpetrators in the dependent measure clips, compared to control subjects. There was no apparent relationship between physiological desensitization and later victim/perpetrator judgments.