The psychological need for violent images

A friend of mine asked me a question about the video record of the death of James Foley. It has apparently gone viral on the internet with many, many watching it. She asked me why this is so and why it is shared so much online.

One can answer this question from many perspectives and I will address it from only the individual psychological perspective.

Desensitization is a natural human psychological process that has important implications for our own mental health. People need to desensitise from time to time just like we need to exercise ourselves physically from time to time. When we exercise we put our muscles and body under stress. One reason we do this is because when the body recuperates it come back stronger.

eye space

The human psyche is no different. When we see violent images we naturally desensitise and after recuperation we come back mentally stronger. It all a matter of degree. This is a good thing for the psychology of people in general as long as one does not overly desensitise to violence just like one does not overly exercise.

The problem for most current western societies is they have made their worlds almost totally devoid of all violent images. For instance the media, from a visual image point of view has become almost totally banal. They display only the most tame of violent images such that one could not even call them violent. The problem with this is people become hypersensitized. If you don’t desensitise from time to time then you become hypersensitized. It could be said that one becomes psychologically weak or under exercised and we loose our psychological resilience provided by desensitization. Most living in a western society are like this at the moment.

When a violent video appears on the internet it could be there is a natural tendency by many to seek it out because we crave the natural desensitisation process that we are denied so much these days.

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2 Responses to “The psychological need for violent images”

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  1. LC says:

    My son has seen things on the internet that I would rather he had not. Recently he saw the journalist beheading. Not the specific moment but certainly everything else leading up to and past it. When I asked him how it impacted him he said it doesn’t. He said it’s brutal aspect of life in certain cultures and to remember that beheadings have been going on forever. I worry that seeing what he sees makes him less empathic but he tells me that he knows what is right and wrong, what is cruel etc. He is not indifferent to the suffering of people but it’s not his problem and he feels no need to dwell on it.

    How does a young person get a balance of experiencing the desensitisation that you say that need without becoming a person who does not care about suffering.

  2. Tony White says:

    Hi Linda,

    The first thing I have to say is don’t worry about it. People do not develop a lack of empathy or care about the suffering of others without a very good reason. In essence you are talking about some degree of the psychopathic personality. This does not happen unless the child suffers significant neglect and/or abuse as a child.

    Second Australia, probably like the US and the UK at the moment societies that are quite hypersensitized to violence. We only see very sanitised images of violence and that journalist beheading is a prime example, which I have also seen on television. What you say is right, your son didn’t see the beheading, all you see is some guy kneeling on the ground wearing an orange jump suit and some guy standing next to him wearing a balaclava and holding a knife. That’s it. After all the violence warnings you hear the media give, that is all you see. You don’t see any violence, none at all! So it needs to be kept in perspective, he didn’t see any violence in that and it is just reflective of a society that is overly hypersensitized to violence.

    Young adult males are setting about making themselves tough, both psychologically and physically. I am talking about the group here, as there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Teenage and young adult females are different and are more relationship and sensitive focussed, as a group of course. That is just the way it seems to happen. Males tend to naturally do things that will desensitise them, at least psychologically. It’s a normal thing in the vast majority of cases. Some argue, and I agree with this to a certain extent, that this is genetically programmed into us as humans. We need people who are tough and desensitised to do all the tough and ugly jobs in society that need to be done. But again, I stress that in Australia even our males are not required to be that desensitised as we have sanitised our society so much at this point in time.


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