Law in Contemporary Society
-- ConnorHudson - 27 Apr 2022

The Perception of Violence in Skinner's World

Will Smith's slap of Chris Rock at the Oscars and Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine together highlight an avenue for inquiry into how the technologization of society has affected individual perceptions of violence. In tandem, the events presented the American public with examples of consummatory/reactive and instrumental violence, which were largely insulated from partisan, sensationalist framing.

The Social Psychology of Violence

Across sociological studies of violence, academics broadly agree that the determinants of collective (unorganized) violence are a combination of Value Deprivation, Communication and Learning, and the Balance of Power. Within this taxonomy, present communications and past response learning influence the imitative or inhibitive propensity of each perceived violent act, affecting aggression resulting therefrom. This time-related social learning is a driving mechanism of why collective violence follows a sigmoid curve in its diffusion throughout society, an occurrence that we have been unfortunately reminded of amidst the current contagion of mass shootings. Accordingly, understanding the process of violence perception and which neurocognitive pathways control that inquiry is key to understanding its violence in modern life.

Shifting Avenues of Communication

Vicarious learning about violence is typically based on news media reports of violence, and its consequences, occurring in other parts of the nation or the world. While this premise likely remains valid, it is critical to note that the foundational studies which arrived at it occurred amidst a simpler media ecosystem.

In the intervening forty-plus years, regardless of attribution, political polarization has manifested in and is perpetuated in the current state of mass media. Simultaneously, the confluence of communicative technologies becoming a part of our lived environment, fragmenting centralized audiences, and business models premised on the continued intermediation of attention affected the manner and substance in which mass media communicates with the public, and the public’s ability to process information.

Extending from BJ Fogg and the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, the birthplace of Instagram (among others), the result has been that the behaviorist psychobiology of Skinner has been designed into the communicative and social technologies that comprise the majority of American news consumption.

Inherent to the concepts of “hook” and “nudge” essential to the design of the social technologies, from where 71% of Americans receive news input, is the observation that anger and increasingly sensational framing fuel repeat viewership and audience optimization. This incentivizes technology and media companies to embrace polarized framings of current events, creating siloed and self-reinforcing echo chambers. Theorists have hypothesized that the consequences of these practices include changes in social cognition by decreasing depth of processing, impeding freedom of thought, and shifting the shared premises of public discourse.

These shifts in social cognition can potentially impact our perception of violence, implicating the diffusion of collective violence throughout society. Within this observation, the circumstances surrounding Oscars and Ukraine present a unique opportunity to investigate the current status of Communication and Learning about violence, by implicating the search for and interpretation of the information concerning violence necessary to render judgment, relatively free from market-incentivized framing.

Public Opinion of Unframed Violence

While different in scale and in kind, the violence at the Oscars and in Ukraine were both variations from legitimate, institutionalized behaviors. Yet, the two events were united by a vital strand, each held little potential for gains in power through contrarian framings. Instead, the events provoked free thought on displays of violent intolerance in the public conscience.

Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock received insulation from political framing as a mere spectacle of cultural interest. In the context of a polarized media ecosystem, this lack of framing necessitated independent information gathering to arrive at an opinion. This manifested in a variety of opinions on the justification of violence, faith-based and academic understandings, and a reactive discourse. Without monolithic responses seeking to capitalize on individual worldviews in pursuit of political or profit motives, nuanced opinions resulted from the ensuing pluralism, and assessments of relative fault were not exculpatory in public opinion.

Standing in stark contrast, the invasion of Ukraine presented true global violence in a country similar enough to our own that a critical mass of Americans paid close attention. The abhorrent nature of the invasion and the sympathy that images of the war evoked from the public nullified the potency of truly contrarian opinions, insulating the events from reductive tribalistic framing. In this environment, public inquiry began from a place of threshold support for Ukraine, but moved beyond simplistic affective responses. Instead, public opinion blossomed into disparate assessments of potential government reactions, with some nearing an effective public consensus, divorced from domestic political implications.

The Importance of Studying Public Inquiry

Human perceptive processes, engaging cognitive, evaluative, and affective pathways determine the Communication and Learning influencing collective violence and have been systematically exploited by the design of the communicative and social technologies that largely pervade modern life. To account for the effect of this attention economy on our fundamental perceptive processes, and the implications for collective violence arising therefrom, it seems essential to study the human assessment of violence free from exploitive, polarized framing.

By presenting the media-consuming public with both instrumental and consummatory acts of violence which are largely insulated from advantageous framing and polar positioning by the media, the Oscars and Ukraine present two instances of highly visible violence where arrival at an opinion required individual inquiry and perception. Accordingly, through further study, the events hold the potential for demonstrating how the attention economy has changed the Communication and Learning process affecting the prevalence and diffusion of collective violence throughout society. Understanding the presence or absence of such a shift holds fundamental importance for how we causally attribute the spread of violence in the digital age and can potentially inform a strategic framework to either combat collective violence or level a critical appraisal of the culpability of modern media frameworks and technology business models.


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r5 - 07 Jun 2022 - 18:05:57 - ConnorHudson
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