Understanding Media Influence

Are the entertainment media really as powerful as we're often led to believe? The argument is regularly made that violence in society is directly attributable to violence in movies, television, and popular music. Is this really true? I'll admit that I'm skeptical. It's hard for me to believe that people actually go out and commit crimes simply because they've seen something similar in a film. What do you think?

Skepticism can be healthy in certain situations, but it’s important to make sure that your doubts are reasonable and consistent with the facts. In this instance, there’s plenty of solid evidence to suggest that the power of the media is a force to be reckoned with.

It’s hard to deny that music and visual images have tremendous sticking power in the human brain. You probably won’t have any trouble conceding that point. The bigger issue is whether those lingering sensations make any real, measurable difference in the way people behave. We’d suggest that they do, and to prove our point we’d like to introduce our first star witness: the advertising industry.

Advertisers know that media can exert a powerful influence over people’s thoughts and actions. Why else would intelligent CEOs who run large corporations plunk down $3 million for a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl? They don’t care about anything except the bottom line. They’re banking their business on the assumption that viewers will be impacted by music and images, will remember the message they convey, and will respond in a way that generates profits.

Of course, the cause-and-effect process is not as simple as “monkey see, monkey do.” It’s more subtle than that. The media influence our behavior indirectly by manipulating our moods, attitudes and emotions. Dr. Richard G. Pellegrino, a neurologist and neuroscientist, says that nothing he does can affect a person’s state of mind like a simple song.

Pellegrino has treated opium overdose victims in a New York City emergency room, where the drug naloxone is routinely used to disrupt the opium high. As a by-product of his work, the doctor has found that listening to music generates chemicals in the brain that are chemically similar to opium. These natural opioids, or endorphins, can produce a “high” comparable to that induced by drugs. Interestingly enough, endorphins also resemble heroin in the way they respond to Naloxone. Through experimentation, Dr. Pelligrino has demonstrated that if we give Naloxone to a group of people and ask them to listen to their favorite music, the intensity of the feelings associated with the music seems to diminish. Listening suddenly becomes an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional experience. To a certain extent, it’s lost its affective power.

This makes sense. We’ve all experienced the emotions that accompany music. We know how powerful they can be. But – and here’s the point of this entire discussion – achieving this effect while simultaneously dumping verbal garbage into the subject’s brain can produce extremely destructive results. As Dr. Pellegrino puts it, “If you pour the wrong messages in, they can take on a power far greater than the listener realizes.”

This, of course, is exactly what much of contemporary pop music does: it creates an emotional or experiential “high,” then uses that “high” as a vehicle to slip any number of violent and antisocial messages into the mind. The visual imagery of movies and television accomplishes much the same thing. It’s like a drug that comes with an attached agenda. Is it any wonder that people can be easily induced to commit acts inspired directly by the emotional impact of this kind of experience? We don’t think so. On the contrary, we can’t help believing that there is a very real connection between violence in entertainment and violence on the six o’ clock news.

If you still have doubts, or if you’d simply like to discuss these concepts at greater length, call our Counseling department. Our trained counselors would be more than happy to speak with you over the phone.


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