When a good guy gets picked on in a superhero movie, you know it's only a matter of time before Iron Man or Captain America shows up to set things right.
But as the blood spills on the big screen, kids aren't necessarily seeing the bigger picture—they mostly just want to kick some ass, a new study reveals.
A team of researchers at Brigham Young University found that viewing superhero movies led to an increase in aggressive behavior among preschoolers.
"We wanted to find out the effect of [superhero] culture on young kids, whether they displayed aggressive or defending behavior," says Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young and the study's lead researcher. "Research has shown that younger children are more vulnerable—they're still figuring out the world, and whether they think aggression is okay."
In the study, the researchers assessed 240 preschool-aged children. Parents were required to complete questionnaires about the superhero with whom their child identified most strongly, the amount of time their child spent interacting with various types of superhero media, and why each child liked one superhero more than others.
Parents were also asked to observe the amount of aggressive behavior their kids displayed, as well as the amount of 'defending' behavior—the pre-school version of Spiderman saving Mary Jane from Doc Oc. The children mainly imitated the former type of behavior.
"It seems like there's a relationship with increased aggression, but not the defending behavior we thought we'd see," says Laura Stockdale, a BYU psychology professor who co-authored the study. "They picked up on aggression and violence."
Stockdale says the study aligns with previous research that suggests violence can numb people to the pain that others experience. (In that study, college students who watched violent media were less likely to help an injured woman who dropped her crutches, and also less likely to help the "victim" of a staged fight.)
For younger audiences, however, the main issue is that children don't appear to understand the point of the violence, says David Nelson, a fellow professor of family life at BYU and another co-author on the study.
"The only thing they emulate is the fight itself."