A Test of Emotional Habituation to Violent Film Exposure in Adults With Varying Levels of Empathy (Trait, Desensitization, Behavioral Tolerance, Arousal, Real-Life, Television)

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Gary E. Jones

Advisor Department



The emotional habituation hypothesis states that repeated observation of TV violence may result in a blunting of emotional response to subsequent real-life violence. A study with an adult population found support for males, but not females (Thomas, Horton, Lippincott, & Drabman, 1977). The current study sought to provide a test of the short-term habituation process in adults with a real-life violence condition, using psychophysiological and behavioral dependent measures. Male and female adults were classified as high or low in relative trait empathy by scores on a self-report inventory, while past violence viewing was statistically controlled. Subjects viewed either a Violent fictional or Nonviolent documentary film, followed by exposure to a real-life violence condition involving children. The emotional habituation hypothesis was fully supported for males on physiological measures. However, females who viewed the violent film demonstrated the opposite effect on both physiological and behavioral measures. Because this group also reported a mood shift from happy to unhappy after viewing the violent film, it was proposed that they experienced sensitization, rather than the predicted desensitization, to real-life violence. There was no support for a trait empathy effect. In summary, the emotional habituation hypothesis was supported as previously hypothesized for male adults. However, female adults may demonstrate sensitization from prior viewing of violent fiction viewing behaviorally and in their levels of autonomic reactivity. The emotional habituation hypothesis was revised, with consideration of gender differences. Additional investigation was suggested to further examine the relationship of physiological response patterns to behavioral tolerance.