Blood dripped from the wounded bull, staining the sand of the oval arena. My stomach churned. I nearly became sick.
I thought I was accustomed to seeing violence, having spent my life immersed in hyper-realistic war movies and blowing the heads off of enemies in killing-based video games. But while in Spain, I entered the stadium of my first bullfight with a great deal of naivety. I didn’t understand the tradition; I had never been exposed to the specific form of violence portrayed in bullfights. Though I had been inoculated to a great deal of violence throughout my life, this new stimulus had a profound effect on my conscience.
But within an hour, my psyche had been transformed. By the end of the fight, my shackles of empathy had been loosed. My concern for the bulls was completely gone. I rejoiced when the matadors triumphed. I even joined the crowd in thunderous applause and shared nods of approval with complete strangers.
I had just voluntarily subjected myself to systematic desensitization—a form of behavioral therapy that, when used in a clinical setting and administered by a licensed professional, can help clients rid themselves of debilitating phobias. This method, developed by Joseph Wolpe in the 1950’s, works by having clients set up a hierarchy of fears, ordered from least to greatest, and then systematically working through them until the fear response is gone.
However, the technique of systematic desensitization can be unwittingly applied to violence as well. Violence, especially gun related violence, is inescapable and interwoven into the fabric of the American society. It is portrayed in nearly every form of media, and is on the rise. According to a recent study on gun violence trends in movies conducted by the journal Pediatrics, the frequency and intensity of these scenes of violence are increasing at an alarming rate—researchers found that gun violence in PG-13-rated movies has more than tripled since 1985, and overall gun violence in films has more than doubled since 1950.
This study also noted that exposure to scenes of violence over periods of time systematically desensitizes us by not only decreasing our ability to empathize, but also by fostering an attitude that lends itself to recreating these scenes in real life.
After James Holmes killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, he referred to himself as "The Joker" when arrested.
After each unfortunate tragedy where guns are involved, legislators rally together and cry for reform, quickly pinning the blame on mental illness and gun control or lack thereof. And the conversation of systematic desensitization to violence by the media is opened up anew.
“It is clear from decades of research that repeated exposure to scenes of violence, whether it is via media or video games, does have some impact on a person’s physiological reactions to new scenes of violence,” says Dr. Linda Castillo, professor of psychology at Texas A&M University. “Systematic desensitization to violence affects empathy we feel for others. And, it is empathy that moves us to help others.”
It was, in fact, empathy, the ability to understand and connect with another being’s feelings and situation, that acted as the catalyst to my systematic desensitization during the bullfight. My empathy for the bull led to feelings of revulsion over how I perceived it was being treated. And like all subjugates of this method, I had to make a choice. The process only works if the participants willingly submit themselves to it. While I could have objected to the bullfight, walked away or even closed my eyes, I instead chose to watch with morbid fascination. I knew I didn’t like what was happening, but the more I saw, the less I cared.
“Systematic desensitization is a means for coping with a conflict of your paradigm,” Dr. Castillo says. “There’s always a turning point in someone’s mind when it comes to violence.”
The bullfight ended and I shouldered my way through the bustling crowd while recapping the event’s highlights with friends. It felt like exiting a movie theater after seeing Die Hard. I was pumped. The well-being of the bulls was the last thing I was thinking about, but I also didn’t feel compelled to kill a bull myself. My now-desensitized mind recognized the bullfight as entertainment.
However, for others, this conscious effort to separate fact from fiction may not be as easy. The crux of the issue is that children, and adults with mental illness, will have a greater degree of difficulty differentiating between fictional violence and real-life violence after becoming systematically desensitized.
“I believe that desensitization is one component that can lead to violence, but it is not the only component,” Castillo added. “Other issues like mental illness are definitely at play. For example, there are many individuals who enjoy watching violent movies and who after watching a violent movie don't shoot everyone in the theater. Most of the time it is a combination of things. There is often a history of mental illness or child abuse, in addition to a history of exposure to violent games and movies.”
So in a culture that is flooded with increasingly violent media, how do we retain our empathy? The solution, Castillo thinks, is the moderation of our exposure.
“Ideally, the best way to remain sensitive is to reduce the amount of exposure to violence we see in the media,” Castillio explains. “The media can help with this [by] how they report or show violent acts.”
In the end, I am grateful I went to the bullfight. It opened my eyes to how quickly one can be systematically desensitized to violence, how we can rationalize injury as entertainment.