GRAD Alumni Research Award 2015 Recipient: Anna Prescott, PBS

Anna Prescott is a PhD student in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department working with Dr. Jay Hull. She successfully defended her dissertation in April and will graduate this June.

Violent video games are immensely popular among children and adults, making it crucial to understand how these games affect the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of those who play them. There is already extensive research demonstrating that these games are associated with increased aggression whether it is measured in controlled laboratory experiments or longitudinal research conducted on real-world behavior.

To explain these effects, most current research uses a behavior simulation approach: Video games reward individuals for practicing certain behaviors in a virtual world, and over time these aggressive responses become so well-learned that they can extend beyond the virtual environment to people’s real-world behavior. This account has a lot of support and can explain changes in aggression, risky driving, and other behaviors that are central to video games.

However, there is increasing evidence that these games also affect additional behaviors, including binge drinking, smoking, and unprotected sex. Although these behaviors are occasionally depicted in some video games, they are not practiced and rewarded extensively in the same way as aggression or risky driving, and behavioral simulation accounts are therefore less able to fully explain such findings.

My dissertation research proposed an alternative account of video game effects that focused on the role of self-involvement, affective responses, and motivated attitude change. According to this account, performing immoral behaviors in a virtual environment can cause an affective (emotional) response that is uncomfortable, or aversive.

Players are motivated to reduce this unpleasant feeling by shifting their attitudes to accommodate their immoral virtual behavior, increasing their tolerance of morally questionable behaviors overall. Importantly, such changes in emotional responses and subsequent attitudes should be most likely if players believe their game play behavior was freely emitted and self-reflective.

Accordingly, I hypothesized that participants who believed they chose to play a violent video game would subsequently report greater tolerance toward deviant behaviors than those who were assigned to play a violent game or who played a non-violent game. Furthermore, I predicted that these effects would be strongest among individuals who tend to reflect about themselves. Finally, I hypothesized that affective responses to violent game play would mediate attitude outcomes.

In a series of five experiments, I tested this account by manipulating the extent to which participants believed they freely chose to play a violent video game and measuring their subsequent attitudes toward deviant behaviors. A variety of approaches (including subjective reports and psychophysiological recordings) were used to measure aversive affect before, during, and following video game play.

Across experiments, the effect of violent video games on attitudes toward behavioral deviance was moderated by self-involvement and mediated by changes in affective responses consistent with predictions. These results suggest acting immorally in a virtual world can shift a player’s moral compass, but the extent to which this happens is partially determined by how the player interprets the meaning of his or her own gameplay behavior. These results increase understanding of the circumstances under which video games have negative outcomes.

Funding from the Alumni Research Award was instrumental to the success of this research because it allowed me to collect data from an additional 60 participants I would not have had access to otherwise. This is because my research involves human volunteers who needed to be compensated for the time they spend participating in my experiments.

Students recruited from Psychology and Neuroscience courses can be compensated with extra credit, but to obtain a large enough sample size for my research I depended on the Alumni Research Award to pay additional individuals I recruited from the general population. Importantly, this allowed me to conduct one of my experiments during Spring and Summer terms, when the population of students available for compensation with extra credit is extremely limited. Without the ability to collect data during these terms I could not have completed my dissertation work on time.