The University Record, February 6, 1996

Women who watched aggressive TV heroines as children more prone to aggression and criminal behavior, says U-M study

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

Television shows like "The Bionic Woman" and "Charlie's Angels" may have faded into rerun history, but the heroines' aggressive behavior lingers in the psyches of many of the young women who watched such shows avidly 15 or 20 years ago.

A U-M study reports that women in their early 20s, who had frequently watched violent television shows as children and identified with aggressive heroines, are more physically aggressive, have more aggressive personalities and are more prone to criminal acts than women who did not watch much TV violence as children.

The findings, which are based on an initial study of 384 girls in 1977 and a follow-up study of 211 of the same sample in 1992, contrast with research in the 1960s.

"A 1963 study found that boys who watched violent television programs regularly were more aggressive than boys who did not. Girls in that study, however, were not much affected," says L. Rowell Huesmann, professor of psychology and research scientist in the Aggression Research Group at the Institute for Social Research.

"The 1977 study, however, found a notable trend. Now girls who watched televised violence were becoming more aggressive, too." What accounted for the change?

Huesmann and his research colleague, graduate student Jessica F. Moise, hypothesize that the increasing aggressiveness of little girls in the 1970s was related to changing mores and a new kind of TVheroine.

"Increasingly, society accepted aggression in women, and the new acceptance showed up in television scripts. Television heroines began to use guns and muscle to attain their ends, just like the male heroes," Huesmann explains. "Now little girls had aggressive characters to identify with, too."

Many of those little girls continued to identify with such heroines after they reached adulthood, and it affected their behavior, Huesmann notes.

"After comparing the 1977 and 1992 data, we found that watching violence on television has an additive effect over time. Girls who watched considerable violence on television were more aggressive and fantasized about aggression more often as children. They also were much more likely to be perceived as aggressive by their peers."

Those who continued to watch a great deal of televised violence as adults were the most aggressive of all. "Those women had more aggressive personalities, reported they engaged more frequently in both mild and severe physical aggression, and committed more criminal acts."

How does watching violence on television lead to aggressive behavior?

"Children who watch violence on television fantasize about it and mentally rehearse specific aggressive acts. The rehearsals increase the likelihood they will use them in real situations where conflict is present. The cognitive effects of these rehearsals linger into adulthood and affect adult behavior," Huesmann explains.

The study will appear in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in late spring.