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The hypodermic syringe model of audience effects

The hypodermic syringe model believes that the media can have a direct and immediate effect on the audience. This model sees the audience as a ‘homogeneous mass’ (all the same), as passive and believing what they see in the media without questioning the content.

It is thus possible for content creators to use their media productions to manipulate vulnerable audiences into thinking or acting in certain ways.

The culture industry 

This theory of media effects is associated with neo-Marxists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the 1940s, who had managed to escape Nazi Germany and resettled in America.

They noted that there were similarities between the ‘propaganda industry’ in Nazi Germany’ and what they called the ‘Culture Industry’ in the United States.

culture industry.PNG

Adorno and Max Horkheimer theorised that popular culture in the USA was like a factory producing standardized content which was used to manipulate a passive mass audience.

They argued that consumption of the ‘dumbed down’ content of popular culture made people passive and false psychological needs that could only be met and satisfied by the products of capitalism.

The ultimate function of the culture industry was thus to manipulate audiences into becoming good consumers and keeping capitalism going.

Further evidence that the media can have direct effects on a passive audience

One of the earliest examples is the audience response to Orson Welle’s radio adaptation of ‘War of the Worlds‘ in 1938.

War of the Worlds is a fictional story about Alien invaders coming from Mars and killing very large numbers of people in the process. The original radio adaptation was done in the style of a news report, and some of the listeners who tuned in after the show had begun (and so missed the introduction to it) actually believed they were hearing a news report, packed their cars and fled to the country.

Feminist sociologists such as Susi Orbach and Naomi Wolfe have highlighted how the ‘beauty myth’, especially the representations of size zero as normal, have encouraged an increase in eating disorders, especially among young women, as well as an increase in mental health problems.

More recent evidence suggests that the campaigns behind both Trump and Brexit used sophisticated targeted advertising to nudge voters into voting for Trump and Brexit, suggesting the media can have a very direct and immediate effect on specific populations (even if such campaigns didn’t treat the audience as a ‘mass’ and so this is only partial support the Hypodermic Syringe Model).

Imitation or Copycat Violence

One of the most researched areas of media effects is that surrounding the relationship between media violence and real-life violence. There is some evidence that media violence can ‘cause’ people to be more violence in real-life…

The Bandura ‘Bobo Doll’ experiment is evidence that media-violence can ‘cause’ children to act more aggressively when given the opportunity to do so. Bandura showed three groups of children real, film and cartoon examples of a bobo-doll being beaten with a mallet. A further group of children were shown no violence. The children were then taken to a room with lots of toys, but then ‘frustrated’ by being told the toys were not for them. They were then taken to a room with a mallet and a bobo-doll, and the children who had seen the violent examples (whether real, film, or cartoon) imitated the violence by beating the doll themselves, while the children who had seen no violence did not beat the doll.

Desensitization 

Newson (1994) theorised that the effects of media violence on children were more subtle and gradual. She argued that continued exposure to violence in films over several years ‘desenstised’ children and teenagers to violence and that they came to see violence as a norm, and as a possible way of solving problems. She also argued that television and film violence tended to encourage people to identify with the violent perpetrators, rather than the victims.

Newson’s research led to increased censorship in the film industry – for example, the British Board of Film was given the power to apply age certificates and T.V. companies agreed on a 9.00 watershed, before which shows would not feature significant sexual or violent scenes.

Criticisms of the hypodermic syringe model

Firstly, this model may have been true in the 1940s when the media was relatively new and audiences less literate, but in today’s new media age, audiences are more likely to criticise what they see rather than just believing it.

Secondly, the hypodermic syringe model treats audiences a ‘homogenous mass, but today’s audiences are more diverse than in the past, so this model is less applicable. This post offers a more nuanced counterpoint: it theorises that the masses were ‘willingly misled’ and thus co-produced a false reality in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s.

Thirdly, it’s too simplistic a theory to explain social problems – societal violence has many causes, and it’s all too easy to scapegoat the media.

Fourthly, where Bandura’s imitative aggression model is concerned, this was carried out in such an artificial environment, it tells us little about how violence happens in real life.

Sources 

This post from Marxists.org provides a nice summary of Adorno and Horkheimer’s views on the culture industry.

Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-level Year 2 Student Book

A Level Sociology of Media Bundle

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my A Level Sociology of the Media Revision Bundle which contains the following:

  1. 57 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within the sociology of the media
  2. 19 mind maps in pdf and png format – covering most sub-topics within the sociology of the media.
  3. Short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – three examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ questions and three of the 10 mark ‘analyse’ with item questions, all take from the specimen paper and the 2017/2018 exam papers.
  4. Three essays and essay plans, taken from the specimen paper and 2017 and 2018 exam papers.
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Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) – The Imitative Aggressive Experiment 

This classic example of a laboratory experiment suggests that children learn aggressive behaviour through observation – it is relevant to the Crime and Deviance module, and lends support to the idea that exposure to violence at home (or in the media) can increase aggressive and possibly violent behaviour in real life.

Bandura-bobo-doll-experiment

Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) aimed to find out if children learnt aggressive behaviour by observing adults acting in an aggressive manner.

Their sample consisted of 36 boys and 36 girls from the Stanford University Nursery School aged between 3 to 6 years old.

Stage one – making some of the children watch violence 

In this stage of the experiment, children were divided into three groups of 24 (12 boys and 12 girls in each group), and then individually put through one of the following three processes. 

  • The first group of children watched an adult actor behaving aggressively towards a toy called a ‘Bobo doll’. The adults attacked the Bobo doll in a distinctive manner – they used a hammer in some cases, and in others threw the doll in the air and shouted “Pow, Boom”.
  • The second group  were exposed to a non-aggressive adult actor who played in a quiet and subdued manner for 10 minutes (playing with a tinker toy set and ignoring the bobo-doll).
  • The final group were used as a control group and not exposed to any model at all.

Stage two – frustrating the children and observing their reactions

The children were then taken to a room full of nice of toys, but told that they were not allowed to play with them, in order to ‘frustrate them’, and then taken onto another room full of toys which consisted of a number of ‘ordinary toys’, as well as a ‘bobo doll’ and a hammer. Children were given a period of time to play with these toys while being observed through a two way mirror.

The idea here was to see if those children who had witnessed the aggressive behaviour towards the doll were more likely to behave aggressively towards it themselves.

Findings 

To cut a long story short, the children who had previously seen the adults acting aggressively towards the bobo doll were more likely to behave aggressively towards to the bobo doll in stage two of the experiment.

A further interesting finding is that boys were more likely to act aggressively than girls.

The findings support Bandura’s ‘social learning theory’ –  that is, children learn social behaviour such as aggression through the process of observation – through watching the behaviour of another person.

Evaluation

Strengths of the bobo-doll experiment 

  • Variables were well controlled, so it effectively established cause and effect relationships (see the link below for more details)
  • It has good reliability – standardised procedures mean it is easy to repeat.

Limitations of this laboratory experiment

  • This study has very low ecological validity – this is a very artificial form of ‘violence’ – an adult using a hammer on a doll (rather than a human) is nothing like the kind of real life aggressive behaviour a child might be exposed to, thus can we generalise these findings to wider social life?
  • Cumberbatch (1990) found that children who had not played with a Bobo Doll before were five times as likely to imitate the aggressive behaviour than those who were familiar with it; he claims that the novelty value of the doll makes it more likely that children will imitate the behaviour.
  • The effects of exposure to aggression were measured immediately, this experiment tells us nothing about the long-term effects of a single exposure to aggressive behaviour.
  • There are ethical problems with the study – exposing the children to aggressive behaviour and ‘frustrating them’ may have resulted in long term harm to their well-being.

Related Posts 

Laboratory Experiments – advantages and disadvantages

Milgram’s Obedience Experiment – is the other ‘classic’ psychology experiment which usually gets wheeled out for use in sociology.

Further Sources 

This post from Simply Psychology offers a much more detailed account of Bandura’s Imitative Aggressive experiment – NB if you’re an A-level sociology student, you don’t really need to know that much detail for this experiment, this link is just for further reading.

You might also like this video which summarises the Bobo Doll Experiment – although bewarned, it’s a bit cringeworthy