Although it may seem peculiar, some researchers are using tools as weird as hot sauce in conjunction with games like Street Fighter to study complex topics like aggression.
In one 2014 study, researchers wanted to find out whether there was a difference in aggression levels between players who played a fighting game using a male avatar versus players who played through the same game using a female avatar.
Participants played Street Fighter IV or Virtua Fighter 5 and were assigned to either a male or female character. Afterwards, the players were paired up with a partner who hated hot sauce, and were told to give their partner as much hot sauce as the player wanted.
The result? Those who played through the fighting game as a male character were significantly more likely to give more hot sauce to their partner than those that played through the game as a female character. The effects were even larger for males that played as a male character, as opposed to females that played as a male character.
In the paper, the researchers explained the results with a phenomenon known as “priming.” Essentially, while gamers play games, they identify more with the characters they play as. If there is a well-known stereotype, such as “men are more violent than women,” then the player will begin to adopt these traits as well.
But, how could such a seemingly out-of-place item like hot sauce possibly tell us more about a topic as complex as aggression? It all comes down to what aggression really is.
Brad Bushman, one of the authors on the 2014 study, defines aggression as “any behavior intended to harm another person who wants to avoid that harm.”
“Participants are told their partner really hates spicy food,” said Bushman. “They are also told they have to eat all of the food they are given. If you give them a lot anyway, you are being mean and behaving aggressively.”
Hot sauce is just one of several tools used to measure aggressiveness. Usually, it comes down to the “cover story”. In the case of the 2014 study, the researchers did not want the subjects to know that they were being studied for aggression, because that could influence their behavior. Using hot sauce allows researchers to tell the subjects they are participating in a taste study, not an aggression study.
Bushman said that other valid lab tools include electric shocks, noise blasts delivered through headphones and even obscure tools like tangram puzzles.
For example, in another study participants were assigned either a social, violent or neutral game. Then, the participants were given thirty tangram puzzles – 10 easy, 10 medium and 10 difficult. The participants were paired up with a partner and told to select 11 of the puzzles for their partner to complete. If the partner completed the puzzles successfully, they would win a gift card.
In this study, aggression was measured by the difficulty of the puzzles assigned to the partner. In the end, those that played social games were more likely to choose easier puzzles for their partner, while those that played violent games were more likely to choose difficult puzzles for their partner. As expected, social games bolstered cooperation, whereas a violent game encouraged aggression.
Unfortunately, the field of psychology remains split on whether this research should be considered valid, and many researchers have found flaws with these research methods.
For example, noise blasts are commonly used to test aggressiveness. Two participants will play a game to test reaction time. The winner of the game is able to blast the loser with a loud noise – the louder the noise, the more aggressive the player.
Using different quantification techniques, researchers can use different methods to analyze data. In fact, according to video game researcher Malte Elson, there are more than 150 different ways that researchers have analyzed noise blast data. In short, researchers can pick and choose how to analyze data to find an analytical method that proves their initial hypothesis.
This creates quite the problem for scientists, who are often pressured to deliver results to continue to receive funding. If one method of analysis does not provide results, a researcher could attempt another method to prove a significant effect. This could occur in almost any sort of study, including the first one that used hot sauce.
Christopher Ferguson, a researcher at Stetson University, said that this pick and choose approach leads to issues in terms of replication – where researchers will attempt to re-do an experiment of another researcher in order to find a similar result. Ferguson said that across many areas of psychological research, scientists are failing to duplicate the results of previous experiments.
Douglas Gentile, the top researcher on the tangram study, said that these methods of analysis were valid. Gentile said that variation strengthened research, not weakened it.
“There are 20 different ways we used… to analyze our data,” said Gentile. “They all showed the same results.”
Although researchers have found flaws in the way data is measured and collected, there are moral limits that researchers must follow.
“Researchers cannot give participants guns and knives to see what they will do with them,” said Bushman.
Studying aggression in the short-term may be difficult, but studying the topic in the long run is even more challenging and inconclusive. Ferguson is skeptical as to whether laboratory experiments could actually give us insight into the societal implications of violent video games.
“Someone might have more aggressive thoughts immediately after playing a violent game, but that would make sense. That does not necessarily mean those thoughts will translate into actions,” said Ferguson. “If someone watches Brokeback Mountain, for example, their thoughts towards homosexuality may change, but that does not mean that they will engage in homosexual actions.”
Gentile agreed that violent videogames likely do not cause higher amounts of criminal violence. However, he said that the “playground” aggression that many children experience at school could likely be influenced by factors such as video game violence.
Another challenge Ferguson pointed out is that of finding funding for research. In an ideal experiment, researchers would take hundreds, if not thousands, of subjects and have each play an hour of a violent or non-violent video each day for a period of several months or years. If there were a significant difference in violence or aggression, then perhaps video games could be the source. However, Ferguson said that an experiment like this would require massive funding and the commitment from many study participants. This is a somewhat unrealistic proposition when many would rather fund research in fields like medicine or robotics.
In a field as subjective as psychology, it is difficult to find measures that everyone can agree on and follow. Hot sauce and Street Fighter may sound perfect to one researcher, but another researcher may point out that hot sauce is a ludicrous measure to use and that Street Fighter is not really as violent as other games, like Call of Duty.
Now, more than ever, there seems to be disagreement.
“If you went back ten years ago, it was very common to see people make claims that there was a consistent body of research that linked video games to aggressiveness,” said Ferguson. “Now, we are producing more studies that are saying there are not harmful effects on aggressiveness, and there seem to be more scholars doing so. The consensus has evaporated.”