Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stimulation vs. Catharsis theory

In media studies, or what used to be called Mass Communication studies, two dichotomous theories are often used to explain the effects of consuming mediated communication. One theory is called Stimulation theory; the other Catharsis theory.

Used often to examine the effects of watching violence on television and film, catharsis theory argues that watching violence does not beget violence.  Rather watching violent acts cause the viewer to purge any latent violent tendencies one has.  So, you watch a film like Goodfellas, where people get pummeled and killed and you do not feel like fighting, because the viewing has taken that violent energy and defused it. Stimulation theorists argue the opposite.  By watching violent activity one is likely to go out and be violent as it stimulates viewers to go do what they've seen done.

Which one is it? Are we more inclined to not do what we watch, or does that energize our desire.

The booming pornography business would suggest that Stimulation theory is on target.  People who watch porn don't go read a book when the film is over.

Some people argue that what happens when people watch sports illustrates the merits of catharsis theory.  Watching sports allows spectators an opportunity, for example, to purge their aggressive tendencies. If you watch a football game or a physical hockey or basketball game, you don't feel stimulated subsequently to tackle your neighbor or cross check your spouse into a wall.

I think these antithetical theories are interesting to contemplate in the context of sport.

Does viewing sport encourage or discourage participation?  There are a lot of pot bellied men watching sports in bars. When I go to Fenway I don't see too many in the stands who look like they can catch anything other than a beer.  On the tv show the Honeymooners, a kid once asked the rotund Ralph if he might substitute on a stickball team because a kid player had the measles.  "What do you say, Mr. Kramden, can you cover second base."  Before Ralph could spew characteristic boasts about his prowess, his sidekick Ed Norton told the kid, "You are looking at a man who can cover the infield, the outfield, and four sections of the bleachers."  And there is no shortage of such men who follow sports teams.  Few seem to have missed the buffet line. It doesn't seem like they have been stimulated to run wind sprints after watching basketball or hockey games.

We might imagine ourselves as a hero after watching sporting events, and after a game we might have wanted to pick up a basketball--when we were kids--but as it relates to sports and adults, I think catharsis theory is more likely the better way to conceptualize the effects of spectating on behavior.

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