2013. Vol.4, No.2, 96-100
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Is Aggressive Trait Responsible for Violence? Priming Effects of
Aggressive Words and Violent Movies
Zhang Qian1,2,3, Dajun Zhang1,2,4*, Lixin Wang1,2,4
1Center for Mental Health Education, Southwest University, Chongqing, China
2Department of Psychology, Southwest University, Chongqing, China
3School of Applied Technology, Southwest University, Chongqing, China
4Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality, Ministry of Education (SWU), Chongqing, China
Received November 15th, 2012; revised December 17th, 2012; accepted January 10th, 2013
The aim of the present study was to examine the priming effects of violent movies and aggressive words
on implicit aggression by using modified STROOP task. 190 adolescents participated in this study, with
95 assigned to non-violent movie group and 95 assigned to violent movie group. The results showed that
no significant difference was found in the main affect of Movie Type, but it revealed significant Movie
Type × Aggressive Trait interaction, and that aggression was significantly influenced by violent movie
only for high-aggressive trait (HT) adolescents, but not for mid-aggressive trait (MT) and low-aggressive
trait (LT) adolescents. The possible underlying mechanism was that HT adolescents may possess a rela-
tively stronger aggressive network of cognitive association which was easily activated by violence than
MT and LT adolescents. This indicated that violent movie could effectively elicit implicit aggression for
adolescents who were highly aggressive, but not for nonaggressive adolescents.
Keywords: Aggressive Trait; Violence; Aggressive Words; Violent Movies; Adolescents; STROOP Task
Aggression was a kind of cognition, affect and behavior di-
rected toward another individual that was carried out with the
intent to cause harm (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). Besides,
the perpetrator must assure that the attacking behavior would
harm the target, and that the target was motivated to avoid the
behavior (Bushman & Anderson, 2001; Baron & Richardson,
1994; Berkowitz, 1993; Geen, 2001). In other words, accidental
hurt was not an aggressive behavior because it was not inten-
tional. Harm which was only a by-product of pro-social behav-
ior could not be defined as aggression, for the target is not mo-
tivated to avoid the action (e.g. pain experienced during an
operation in hospital). The study discussed the type of implicit
aggression, which was elicited by violent stimuli in cognitive
With China entering into the era of information technology
(IT), numerous kids had more and more opportunities to watch
violent movies online, and they were prone to imitate aggres-
sive behavior from the developmental perspective. Furthermore,
China was also undergoing social transition and transformation,
which greatly accelerated the speed of obtaining media violence
for adolescents. As a result, some adolescents, who lacked basic
values and moral judgments, were easily influenced by violent
movies (e.g. high-aggressive trait, aggressive behavior).
Currently, a vast majority of prior literatures reported that
media violence increased aggressive behavior, whereas other
experts were still suspicious about this conclusion. It seemed
that a long-term debate was existed with regard to this issue.
Some researchers assumed that television violence promotes
aggressiveness (Berkowitz, Corwin, & Heironimus, 1963; Black
& Bevan, 1992; Centerwall, 1989; Hennigan et al., 1982; Wil-
liams, 1986; Messner, 1986; Leyens et al., 1975). In particular,
experts claimed violent movies result in anti-social behavior,
strongly supporting the causal hypothesis of film violence and
aggression through meta-analysis (Paik & Comstock, 1994).
Other experts suggested that exposure to media violence is a
causal factor for increased aggressive behavior, cognition, and
affect and for decreased empathy and pro-social behavior
(Anderson, 2010). Additionally, rewarding violent game ac-
tions increased hostile emotion, aggressive thinking and be-
havior. Punishing violent actions increased hostile emotion, but
did not increase aggressive thinking and behavior (Carnagey &
Anderson, 2005; Ballard & Rober, 1999). The more time play-
ing violent media equaled more aggression (Bègue, Scharkow,
& Bushman, 2013). Other scholars, on the contrary, argued that
the evidence above was not overwhelming, and it provided no
reason to believe media violence causes aggression. For exam-
ple, Freedman (1984, 1986) admitted positive correlation exists,
but denied that media violence surely causes aggression. More-
over, it was concluded that either no effect of violent television
has on aggression, or it is vanishingly small (Freedman, 2002,
2004; Anderson & Carnagey, 2009). Based on these views, it
seemed that there was still a close connection between violent
movie and aggression (Anderson, 1997; Paul & Adachi, 2011;
Anderson, & Nicholas, 2009; Gentile et al., 2004; Berkowitz,
Corwin., & Heironimus, 1963; Centerwall, 1989; Dubanoski &
Parton, 1971; Huesmann, 1986; Huesmann et al., 2003). Overall,
most research indicated positive correlation exists between
media violence and aggression across methodologies, cross-
cultures, and media types (TV, video game, movie).
Despite violent media was an important factor leading to ag-
gressiveness, which was not the only factor (Bushman & Ander-
*Corresponding author.
son, 2001). At present, researchers began to explore the moder-
ating role of some variables (e.g. trait aggressiveness; arousal,
content, gender, etc.) in the effects of violent media on aggres-
sion, and significant positive correlation was found between
media violence and aggression. For instance, Bushman (1995)
found media violence was more likely to increase aggression in
high trait aggressive individuals than in low aggressive indi-
viduals. This may imply a causal correlation between aggres-
sion and aggressive traits.
As to research paradigm, prior researches used STROOP task
to make subjects identify the color of aggressive or nonaggres-
sive word instead of word meaning, so as to figure out the cog-
nitive processes. If subjects showed characteristics of delay
when naming the word color, explaining that they may con-
sume lots of attentional and cognitive resources. For example,
Smith & Waterman (2005) explored sex differences in proc-
essing words related to directly and indirectly aggressive act by
using STROOP task. Anderson et al. (1998) used a modified
STROOP task to investigate significant effects of the weapon
versus non-weapon primes on reaction time to aggression. In
particular, Anderson et al. (1996) used STROOP interference
task to assess hostile cognition, and stimulus words (aggressive
words, control words and escape words), which were presented
in one of five colors (red, green, blue, yellow and white).
What’s more, a recent brain research demonstrated the impor-
tance of fronto-limbic structures for cognitive processing, sug-
gesting that media violence may affect individuals in different
ways depending on aggressive traits (Kalnin et al., 2011; Bertsch
et al., 2009).
In this study, we examined whether significantly priming ef-
fects of violent movies and aggressive words were found in
violent and non-violent movie groups. Hence, the study ex-
plored whether aggressive words could provoke adolescents’
aggression by watching violent or nonviolent movies, and fur-
ther investigated how implicit aggression was elicited by ag-
gressive trait. In this study, two hypotheses were proposed.
1) Hypothesis 1. Violent movies may effectively provoke
adolescents’ aggression.
2) Hypothesis 2. HT adolescents may demonstrate higher
aggression than MT and LT adolescents by watching violent
Procedure and Participants
All participants were asked to complete Buss-Perry Aggres-
sion Questionnaire (BPAQ), and then they were about to par-
ticipate in the modified STROOP task. The data were gathered
in four classes of approximately 48 participants each. After
achieving informed consent, participants were randomly dis-
tributed to watch violent or nonviolent movie clips and given
30 minutes to complete the paper-and-pencil questionnaire.
Then they finished STROOP task on computer. The modified
STROOP task was programmed by E-prime software, and in-
structions were presented on screen: “The task is to test your
speed and accuracy of responses, and the goal words will be
presented in different color. If the word color is green, press 1
on keyboard, if the word color is blue, press 2. You should
react as quickly and accurately as possible to determine the
word color instead of meaning, then the next trial begins.” After
instructions appeared, a gray sign “+” emerged on the screen
centre with the time of 300 ms, and the stimulus words lasted
for 1500 ms. If participants did not respond in 1500 ms, the
program would automatically enter into the blank screen of
next trial for 100 ms. The inter-stimulus-interval (ISI) was 200
to 300 ms. Meanwhile, accuracy rate and reaction time (RT)
were recorded (See Figure 1). The whole experiment was di-
vided into two sessions: 1) Practical session. The session was
to familiar participants with experimental procedure, especially
for the counterbalance between color and key pressing. 30 trials
were existed but did not appear in formal session. The program
returned to practical session if the accuracy rate was below 80
percent. 2) Formal session. It was divided into 3 blocks, in
which 60 trials and totally 180 trials were presented. Both 30
aggressive and 30 nonaggressive words were presented in one
of two colors (blue, green), and the same word did not appear
repeatedly in each block. Participants should focus their atten-
tion to the screen centre, and they could have a short rest
among blocks. After the experiment, participants (especially
HT adolescents) were debriefed about their aggressive affect,
cognition, and attitude, in order to know their implicit aggres-
sion to violence. All participants were treated according to the
ethical guidelines of the American Psychological Association
(APA, 2001).
The total participants were 190 adolescents (95 boys, 95 girls)
from a small high school in the southwestern area of China.
Adolescents ranged in age from 15 to 19 years (M = 16.22, SD
= 1.21). 71% were from urban area while 29% were from coun-
tryside area. Approximately 88% were Han majority, while 9%
were Tujia minority, 3% were Miao minority. These demo-
graphics represent the student population at this school. 95
adolescents watching THE BIG FAT KILL were regarded as
violent movie group, and 95 adolescents viewing LITTLE
BASCALS were deemed as nonviolent movie group (See Ta-
ble 1).
Experimental Design
Multi-factorial design was used, with Movie Type and Ag-
gressive Trait as independent variables and Aggression as de-
pendent variable. 2 (Movie Type: violent vs. non-violent) × 2
(Goal Word: aggressive vs. non-aggressive) × 3 (Aggressive
Trait: HT, MT, LT) repeated three measures analysis of vari-
ance (ANOVA) was conducted with Movie Type and Aggres-
sive Trait as between-group factor, and Goal Word as within-
group factor. According to score distribution, participants who
got score at the top of 27% on Buss Perry Aggression Ques-
tionnaire (BPAQ) were defined as HT, and the last 27% were
seen as LT, and the rest were considered as MT.
ISI (ms)
Figure 1.
Modified STROOP task procedure.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 97
Table 1.
Participants in the modified STROOP task.
Aggressive trait Overall
Group type HT MT LT
Violent movie group
Nonviolent movie group
31 29 35
28 30 37
59 59 72
Stimuli and Measures
Movie Clips
SIN CITY (also known as Frank Miller’s SIN CITY), was a
2005 American crime thriller film written, produced and di-
rected by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez (Maitland, 2011).
The plot of the file, THE BIG FAT KILL1, was selected as a
violent movie clip in the study. LITTLE BASCALS (also
known as OUR GANG), directed by Penelope Spheeris (Leo-
nard & Richard, 1977, 1992), was a series of 1994 American
comedy short films and chosen as nonviolent movie clip in the
study. The violent movie clip included body-fighting scenes
between two males with language attack, whereas the non-
violent movie clip included no body-fighting content and lan-
guage attack. The watching time of each movie clip lasted for
15 minutes.
The computer resolution rate was 1024 × 576, and the refresh
rate was 60 Hz. The distance between participants and screen
was around 60 cm, their faces and eyes were parallel with the
Goal Words
30 aggressive and 30 nonaggressive words were randomly
matched. The words were used in No. 48 black italics and
presented in one of two colors (green, blue) with a gray
background. The presented order was counterbalanced.
Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (BPAQ)
BPAQ, a 5-point rating scale, was used to measure aggres-
sive trait (HT, MT, LT). BPAQ consists of four dimensions:
physical aggression (PA), verbal aggression (VA), anger (A),
and hostility (H). Internal consistent reliability (Cronbach-alfa
coefficient) for the Scale was .94. Test and re-test reliability
yielded a correlation coefficient of .89. Cronbach-alfa coeffi-
cients of physical aggression, verbal aggression, anger, and
hostility were .85, .72, .83 and .77, respectively. The question-
naire supports the convergent validity as a measure of aggres-
sion (Buss & Perry, 1992).
Priming Effects of Viole nt Movies and A ggressive
Words on Aggression
A repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) was
carried out to examine the main effect of goal words on implicit
aggression. Table 2 showed that a significant main effect of
goal word was found in reaction time (RT), and the mean RT of
aggressive words was significantly longer than that of non-
aggressive words (F = 4.5677, p < .05).
The Main Effect of Movie Type, Movie Type ×
Aggressive Trait Interaction
In the study, we would like to verify the aggressively
priming effect of violent movie and aggressive word on implicit
aggression, and postulated each participant had a mean aggres-
sively priming score (APS), which meant the calculated score
for the mean RT value of aggressive words minus nonaggres-
sive words for the violent movie group (THE BIG FAT KILL),
and found whether significant difference of APS in group type
(See Table 3).
Although the average APS of violent movie group (11 ms)
was higher than that of non-violent movie (3 ms) by watching
violent movies (See Table 3), Table 4 showed no significant
difference in main effect of movie type on aggression (F = .79,
p > .05).
Multivariate analysis of covariance (MANCOVA) was used
to test whether significant difference was found in APS among
independent variables (See Table 4).
As can be seen in Table 4, there was significant Movie Type
× Aggressive Trait interaction (F = 6.45, p < .05). Further
simple effect analysis showed the average APS of HT
adolescents watching violent and non-violent movies were
16.78 and 2.95, respectively, and that aggression of HT ado-
lescents was significantly elicited by violent movie clips (F =
9.81, p < .05). The average APS of MT adolescents viewing
violent and non-violent movies were 11. 09 and 16.43, respec-
tively, and that aggression of MT participants was not signifi-
cantly elicited by violent movies (F = 2.84, p > .05). The aver-
age APS of LT participants watching violent and non-violent
movies were .66 and 2.82, respectively, and that aggression
of LT participants was not significantly elicited by violent
movies (F = .06, p > .05) (See Table 5).
The main purpose of the study was to explore the priming
effect of violent movies and aggressive words on adolescents’
Table 2.
Differences between aggressive and nonaggressive words in RT.
Goal words
Aggressive words
Non-aggressive words
RT 545 53.16 531 51.88 4.677*
Note: *p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001.
Table 3.
Mean RT (ms) to aggressive and nonaggressive words between violent and
nonviolent movie group.
Goal words
Group type Aggressive words Nonaggressive words Mean
Violent movie group 684 88.26 695 93.07 +11
Nonviolent movie group 691 84.43 688 100.81 3
Aggressively priming effect +14
1THE BIG FAT KILL focused on a street war between a group of prostitutes
and a group of mercenaries, the police, and the mob. LITTLE BASCALS
told about a group of poor neighborhood children and the adventures they
had together. The series was noted for showing children behaving in a rela-
tively natural way. Note: Aggressively priming effect = mean aggressively priming score for violent
movie group.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Table 4.
MANCOVA in APS between movie type and aggressive trait.
Independent variables M SD F
Movie type 238 23.66 .79
Movie type × Aggressive trait 1727 285.49 6.45**
Note: *p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001.
Table 5.
Post Hoc in APS among aggressive traits by watching movie clips.
Aggressive trait Violent movie Non-violent movie F
High-aggressive 16.78 2.95 9.81*
Mid-aggressive 11.09 16.43 2.84
Low-aggressive .66 2.82 .06
Note: *p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001.
implicit aggression. Overall, there was no significant difference
in main effect of movie type on aggression, but significant
Movie Type × Aggressive Trait interaction was found, and that
implicit aggression of HT was significantly elicited by violent
movies. Nevertheless, the implicit aggression of adolescents
with moderate and low aggressive trait was not significant elic-
ited by aggressive words. This result was in consistent with
previous researches (Bushman, 1995, 1996; Anderson, 1997;
Cross & Campbell, 2012; Khoury, 2012; Wallace et al., 2012).
Therefore, we may infer that HT adolescents were more likely
to choose violent movies than MT and LT adolescents in their
daily life, and their aggression would be easily activated by
violent stimuli.
In agreement with our hypothesis 1, the study showed that
violent movie effectively activated Chinese adolescents’ im-
plicit aggression. Both movie type and aggressive trait affected
aggression, partly supporting General Aggressive Model (GAM)
and Cognitive-new Association Model (CAM). It should be
noticed that, however, implicit aggression of MT and LT ado-
lescents was not significantly affected by violent movie, which
partly testified hypothesis 2. By what casual mechanisms did
these priming effects occur? According to cognitive neoasso-
ciation theory (Bushman & Geen, 1990; Berkowitz, 1984), high
trait aggressive individuals were more susceptible to effects of
violent movies than low-aggressive individuals because of the
larger aggressive association network activated. Thus, HT ado-
lescents may have stronger aggressively cognitive-association
network than MT and LT adolescents, demonstrating signifi-
cant implicit aggression. One characteristic of the study was
that violent movies aroused implicit aggression for MT indi-
viduals, which previous research didn’t examine. In light of this
result, we inferred that repeated exposure to violent movies
may form aggressively cognitive schema for HT adolescents,
and easily caused aggression.
Compared with this study, undergraduate psychology stu-
dents were used as main participants in previous research
(Bushman, 1995). In the present study, Chinese adolescents
were used as participants, and STROOP task was employed to
investigate whether aggressive trait affects cognitive processing
on aggressive words. Besides, previous studies showed the
significant main effect of movie type, and that participants who
viewed violent movies showed higher state of hostility than did
those who watched nonviolent movies (Anderson, 1997). The
study, however, demonstrated no significant main effect of
movie type, and that no significant difference was found in
implicit aggression activated between participants viewing vio-
lent movie clips and those viewing nonviolent movie clips.
Perhaps difference among these factors was averaged and offset,
which led to this result. Moreover, introspective methods were
used to let participants describe their aggressive feelings, which
could make up for the experimental research fault.
This study may be one of the first to explore priming effects
of violent movies and aggressive words on implicit aggression
of adolescents in China. Also this was one of the first to find
the impact of aggressive traits (HT, MT, LT) on implicit ag-
gression for Chinese adolescents. The results of this study,
however, should be noticed in light of some limitations. First,
the sample selected in the study was a relatively small and ho-
mogeneous group at a high school. As a result, cautions should
be made when the conclusions were generalized to another
population (e.g. cross-cultures, multi-nation). Second, the data
we obtained from a cross-sectional design, which prevented the
final determination of casual relationships. Third, in this study,
all participants were asked to complete BPAQ, which was use
to assess aggressive trait in the US Perhaps some items in the
scale were not suitable for the reality of adolescents under Chi-
nese traditionally cultural background. In future study, re-
searchers should consider using a revised edition of BPAQ to
survey and obtain data, to scientifically and exactly classify
aggressive trait. Additionally, longitudinal studies should be
developed to provide stronger evidence on the relationships
among variables explored in the study. Last, emphasis should
be placed on the case that watching violent movies surely led to
aggression. We should draw conclusions with great caution and
care. Upon this study, it just showed that violent movies and
aggressive words may provoke implicit aggression only for HT
adolescents, not on all adolescents who viewed violent movies.
Presumably, this was the reason why so many prior researchers
had fierce debates on this issue for a long period (Freedman,
In the present study, we have examined the priming effects
of violent movie and aggressive words on implicit aggression
of Chinese adolescents by employing STROOP word-color
naming task. What’ more, we concluded that aggressive words
could elicit implicit aggression of HT adolescents rather than
MT and LT adolescents. Thus, this result should not be inter-
preted to generalize that watching violent movies surely elicit
all adolescents’ implicit aggression.
The study was funded by the Scientific Research Grants of
Southwest University (Grants Number: SWU1209504). Sincere
thanks should be given to Dr. Jinliang Wang and Dr. Zhu Yi for
their helpful suggestions on this manuscript.
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