Rowell Huesmann

by Susan Rosegrant
September 2009

It’s an iconic moment in film. Clint Eastwood, in the role of Harry Callahan, or Dirty Harry, has cornered Scorpio, a despicable giggling deviant, at the end of a battered dock. Harry is a renegade San Francisco cop who operates by his own rules—no matter how risky or brutal—to rescue victims and get bad guys: His illegal torture and interrogation of Scorpio earlier in the movie is what put the murderer back on the street. Now Scorpio, already shot once by Harry, reaches tentatively towards the gun he has dropped. Harry talks softly, speculating that the injured man must be wondering whether Harry’s .44 Magnum still has one bullet left in its chamber or is empty. “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?” Harry says softly. Then his face twists, and he spits out, “Well, do ya, punk?” Thus taunted, Scorpio grabs for his gun and Harry fires the fatal shot, propelling Scorpio’s body into the still water below.

An adult watching Dirty Harry might gasp at the bloody parts, register a twisted sense of pleasure at Harry’s hard justice, and go on with life. But what happens when kids, say ten years old or even younger, see violent movies or television shows featuring shootouts, stabbings, or chainsaw massacres—especially if they watch them week after week? According to L. Rowell Huesmann, director of the Research Center for Group Dynamics (RCGD) at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), the question isn’t academic. Regular viewing of such violent scenes, he says, predisposes children to be aggressive, not only in the hours or days after exposure, but even decades later.

Huesmann’s groundbreaking research has helped shape society’s understanding of the psychological foundations of aggression. In the process, Huesmann—a lean 66-year-old with a long tan face and a wide Jiminy Cricket smile—has become one of the go-to people on the impacts of violent media on behavior. “Rowell is like a god of aggression research,” says Brad Bushman, an RCGD research professor and professor of psychology and communications studies who works with Huesmann. Huesmann is also a lightning rod in the fierce controversy over the degree to which violent media beget violent behavior and what, if anything, should be done about it.

Huesmann began his research on aggression 40 years ago as a young assistant professor of psychology at Yale. Leonard Eron, a professor and clinical psychologist, needed a collaborator who was a strong statistician and who could do sophisticated data analysis; Huesmann, with Ph.D.s in systems and communications science and psychology from Carnegie-Mellon, fit the bill. Back in 1960, Eron had launched a study of the more than 800 third graders in upstate New York’s Columbia County to look at the prevalence of aggressive behavior among Middle American youth. Initially, the influence of media violence was not even on Eron’s radar screen, Huesmann says. But a few filler questions meant to put respondents at ease—what Eron referred to as the “Ladies’ Home Journal questions”—asked about kids’ TV viewing habits. Those questions, Huesmann says, turned out to be a stroke of genius. “When they coded those programs that the children watched for violence,” he says, “the watching of more violent programs was correlated with aggressive behavior.”

In 1970, Eron and Huesmann went back for a ten-year follow up to the Columbia County survey, this time with an eye on media violence. The results, Huesmann says, demonstrated for the first time that boys who watched a lot of violent television were more likely to behave aggressively ten years out—independent of other causes—than their peers who didn’t. (The survey didn’t show an effect on girls.) “There had been a lot of belief that there was a short-term causal effect,” Huesmann says, “but there was a lot of uncertainty about the long-term effect.” Additional follow ups in 1982 and 2000 showed the long-term impact extending even into middle age.

The Columbia County Longitudinal Study opened a fertile area of research and propelled Huesmann and Eron into the public spotlight. They testified before Congress, served on governmental panels, and wrote extensively about the dangers of exposing kids to violent TV. Huesmann followed Eron to the University of Illinois in Chicago, and then, in 1992, moved to the University of Michigan, his undergraduate alma mater. Huesmann brought with him the Aggression Research Program he and Eron had created at Illinois to study the causes and prevention of aggressive and antisocial behavior. (Eron soon came out of retirement and followed Huesmann to Michigan, dividing his time between the psychology department and ISR. The long, close collaboration ended with Eron’s death in 2007.) In 2004 Huesmann became editor of the international journal Aggressive Behavior, and in 2006, he was named director of RCGD, as well as Amos N. Tversky Collegiate Professor of Communication Studies and Psychology.

The Columbia County work was seminal in launching his career, Huesmann says. But the methodology and results were even stronger in a second study, which followed a sample of more than 500 first and third graders in the Chicago area over 15 years, ending in 1992. This time, the survey was designed from the start to look at the impacts of violent media, he says, and the results were conclusive: Boys and girls who watched a lot of violent television were more likely to behave aggressively after 15 years—punching and shoving others, racking up traffic violations, even committing serious crimes—than their peers who did not, particularly if they identified with violent characters of their own sex and believed that what they saw reflected the real world. (The researchers fingered Dirty Harry as just the sort of movie kids shouldn’t watch: one in which a violent but charismatic hero is rewarded for his aggressive acts.) “We did everything as perfectly as you can in that study,” Huesmann says. “We assessed media violence viewing much more perfectly, we assessed aggression as an adult much more carefully.” Researchers also made sure that other variables—such as parenting, socioeconomic status, and IQ—weren’t responsible for the impact they were observing. “None of them,” Huesmann says, “explained the effect.”

Huesmann stresses the meticulousness of the research in part because he’s used to being challenged. The notion that watching violent media as a child is a factor in disruptive conduct—that what kids observe encodes programs, or “scripts,” in their brains that help govern behavior—has become broadly accepted. But in the 40-plus years since Huesmann and Eron first announced their survey results, their ideas also have been under steady attack.

Huesmann has given a lot of thought to why. In 2003, he and then Michigan Ph.D. candidate Laramie Taylor wrote a chapter titled “The Case against the Case against Media Violence,” critiquing the arguments against media violence research and trying to explain the psychology of the naysayers. According to Huesmann, critics of his research include media institutions afraid of censorship, individuals focusing on the small minority of studies that find no correlation between viewing violence and aggressive behavior, and those who insist that an unidentified third variable produces children who both like watching violence and being aggressive. Huesmann, though, believes that a more personal explanation underlies many of these arguments: Adults who watched violent shows as kids can’t accept the possibility that it may have affected them. “Particularly with TV, you hear, ‘Well, I grew up watching violence all my life on TV and I’m not a violent person,’” he explains.

Huesmann is the first to acknowledge that watching violent shows is only one factor in aggressive behavior, and not as important as, say, violence in the home, bad peer relations, or drug or alcohol abuse. Indeed, for violent media to have a serious impact on a child, one or more of these other factors will normally be present. But, in a manner reminiscent of Dirty Harry, he also doesn’t back down. In a 2007 review of 41 studies of media violence, conducted with colleague Brad Bushman, Huesmann declared that the effect of media violence on aggression was almost as significant as the effect of cigarette smoking on lung cancer—a provocative comparison unlikely to quiet his detractors. When he presented these findings to the Directors Guild in Hollywood, he says, director Rob Reiner stood up and accused Huesmann of equating film makers with cigarette companies. Yes, Huesmann shot back, that was exactly his point. “Sometimes I lose my temper,” he grins.

Such combativeness is not out of character. Colleagues describe Huesmann as a “pit bull,” an “adrenaline junkie,” someone who “grabs life by the horns.” “When he gets his teeth into something—a project or a paper or anything—he never lets it go,” says Laramie Taylor, who chose Huesmann as his advisor and dissertation chair, and who went on to become an assistant professor of communication at UC-Davis. While working on his dissertation, Taylor recalls watching Huesmann dart from one office to another, driving a grant proposal forward by the sheer force of his presence and personality. “It was just a flurry of activity from the time I got there in the morning until I left at night. And, of course, when I got home and collapsed—exhausted—to rest, Rowell went out to play hockey!”

Even as a kid, Huesmann was intense. Sports were one outlet. Huesmann avoided organized sports: “I couldn’t stand being told what to do, particularly when I thought I knew more about many of these things than the coaches did.” But he played every game that sprang up in the sandlots or streets of his Detroit neighborhood. That competitiveness and love of sports stayed with him. Huesmann climbs mountains, even, in one case, while suffering from severe altitude sickness; hikes with his grandkids; dances with his wife of 45 years, Penny; and plays tennis, ice hockey, soccer, and golf. Lisa Neidert, a senior research associate at ISR who used to manage a co-ed recreational softball team, describes Huesmann as a highly motivated player. When she asked him to be the designated hitter to avoid fielding after a hockey injury, “he let me know he didn’t like sitting on the bench,” she recalls. “When he is there he wants to play.” Huesmann simply remarks: “When I get into something, my heart is in it.”

Clearly, his heart has been kept busy. Looking back, Huesmann thinks his greatest contribution has been to further the understanding of human information processing—what goes on in the mind and how that affects the way people think and act, particularly regarding aggression. He insists he has no axe to grind with television and video games. “Once you understand this process, you realize it has nothing particularly to do with media,” he explains. “What we’re talking about is violence, not the medium.” In fact, Huesmann has expanded his research beyond media: He’s studying the impact on children of living in violent environments, conducting surveys in Palestine and inner city Chicago.

Huesmann says it’s hard to say whether his research has improved what’s on TV, but he does think it’s made many policymakers and parents take notice. More research still needs to be done to understand how to reduce the impact of exposure to violence. For starters, society should be most concerned about children from the ages of two to fourteen, he says. During those years, parents, teachers, and others can talk with kids about violence, watch a violent show with a young person in order to discuss the action and point out how it differs from reality, and simply say no to programs featuring gratuitous violence. Huesmann, himself, was more proactive. His kids didn’t watch violent programs when they were young, and his three grandkids don’t either. Brad Bushman of RCGD, who works closely with Huesmann and considers him a great friend and colleague, says Huesmann is devoted to his kids and grandchildren, but that his concern for children goes beyond his own. It’s a driver in the research he’s done, and in the intensity with which he’s done it. “He loves kids,” Bushman says, “and he’s honestly concerned that they grow up to be stable, peaceful adults.”

That unswerving commitment to a just cause is a mindset that even Dirty Harry might admire.