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Craig A. Anderson

Craig A. Anderson

Craig A. Anderson, Ph.D., Stanford University, 1980, is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Iowa State University; Director, Center for the Study of Violence; and Past-President of the International Society for Research on Aggression. His 240+ publications have received over 37,000 citations. His book Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents included the first longitudinal study of this topic, and the first experimental study to compare the short-term effects of violent children’s video games on the aggressive behavior of both children and college students. He is considered by many to be the world's leading expert on violent video game effects. His General Aggression Model has been applied to clinical, social, personality and developmental psychology; pediatrics; criminology; war and climate change, among other fields. In 2017 Dr. Anderson received the Kurt Lewin Award from the Society for the Psychological Study of Psychological Issues, its top award. It was presented for "outstanding contributions to the development and integration of psychological research and social action." He shared that award with long-time collaborator Dr. Brad Bushman.

In addition to work in the media violence domain, Dr. Anderson's more recent work with talented graduate students and worldwide collaborators addresses issues such as global climate change effects on violence and war; media effects on stereotyping of Arabs/Muslims and on anti-Arab/Muslim public policy positions; media effects on impulsivity, attention deficits, brain function, and aggression; and re-appraisal training as a tool to reduce aggression. He also continues to serve as an associate editor of two journals, is on the editorial boards several other journals, and consults with numerous child advocacy and parent groups and governments on public policy issues.

Research Domains and Contributions

1. Belief perseverance. Dr. Anderson published the first studies to show that social theories—beliefs about how variables in the social world are related to each other—tend to persist even when the total evidential base of the theory is convincingly destroyed. The first article appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1980 (Anderson, Lepper, & Ross). Subsequent articles on theory perseverance appeared in Social Cognition (1982, 1985, 1995, 1998), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (1983), Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (1992), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1986), and the Journal of Educational Psychology (1996). Key findings of these and related studies included that: (a) beliefs that are based on some type of causal explanation are especially resistant to change; (b) the process of generating a causal explanation for some event, even hypothetical ones, can generate a belief or theory that becomes resistant to change; (c) inducing people to generate causal explanations that contradict their initial belief leads to belief change, and can reduce or eliminate the perseverance effect. This work led to an explanation-based persuasion communication intervention that successfully debunked mistaken beliefs about HIV transmission and that increased participants' willingness work with persons with AIDS. Dr. Anderson published over half a dozen additional book chapters and encyclopedia articles on this general topic, including applications to the clinical domain. His most recent paper on this topic was published in 2007.

2. Attribution theory. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Anderson was a leading scholar on three of the major thrusts of attribution theory, the attribution process (when, how, and why do people generate attributions?), the structure of attributions (how do various attributions cluster, what dimensions distinguish them?), and the attribution effects literature (what impact do attributions have on behavior, affect, and cognition?). He was the first to note the importance of strategy attributions (1980) and their role in protecting a person's motivation level even in the face of initial failure, and their role in directing future efforts in thoughtful (i.e., strategic) ways.
Dr. Anderson's work with Bernie Weiner, Douglas Krull, and many others led to the development of a two-stage processing model, the first of which was largely automatic (and thereby subject to momentary priming effects), the second of which was more thoughtful and controlled. His general explanation process model was useful not only in the attribution domain, but it later played a key role in his work to develop what now is known as the General Aggression Model. He developed and tested these theoretical notions in multiple domains, including work on motivation, overcoming failure, and the clinical contexts of loneliness, shyness, and depression. For example, in a series of experimental and correlational studies, he showed that the most important attribution dimension in terms of predicting depression was personal controllability. His work with Sedikides further showed that people normally think about attributions in categorical terms (e.g., effort, ability, strategy), not dimensional terms. This work also was found to have implications for person memory and implicit personality theory, and memory distortions.
Dr. Anderson's attributional style work was found to generalize to Chinese students; the difference between average levels of depression and loneliness between Chinese and American college students was fully accounted for by culturally-based differences in attributional style. His work in the attribution domain appeared in numerous journals, including the Journal of Personality (1980), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (1983), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (twice in 1983, 1988, 1991, 1994), Social Cognition (1985, 1986, 1991, 1995, 1998), Basic and Applied Social Psychology (1989, 1995), Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (1991, 1998, 1999) and Current Directions in Psychological Science (1997). Several book chapters applied the findings to clinical and other domains.

3. Imagination effects. Overlapping many of Dr. Anderson's research interests and studies is a longstanding interest in how merely thinking about or imagining an event influences subsequent thoughts, emotions, motivations, and behaviors. This ties together his interests in individual differences and personality theory, his work on knowledge structure approaches to social cognitive theory, and his work on situational effects across many domains. The belief perseverance work, the attribution theory work, and all of his subsequent work on the General Aggression Model are highly interrelated to his developing knowledge structure model of the dynamics between what a person brings with them to a situation and what the situation both enables and restricts. For example, simply imagining how or why a risky person might be a better fire fighter than a person who typically makes safe (conservative) decisions changes one's implicit personality theory about fire fighters, their interpretations of new data on the topic, and their willingness to change their mind about who would or would not be good at this job.
Similarly, the ease with which one can imagine oneself returning for a minimum number of therapy sessions influence one's intentions to do so; inducing a person to imagine such scenes actually increases such return behavior. Similar imagination effects have been shown by Dr. Anderson's team for multiple behaviors, including blood donation. Similar imagination processes have been found to produce stereotype-based biases in a host of domains, including reality monitoring failures. In addition to the many studies mentioned in the perseverance and attribution sections, other articles on this general topic have appeared in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1983, 1987), Social Cognition (1987), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (1983), and the Journal of Clinical and Social Psychology (1987).

4. Temperature and aggression. Dr. Anderson's first empirical psychology publication was essentially a methodological correction article published with J. Merrill Carlsmith in 1979 in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In that article, the authors challenged earlier empirical work that had suggested that aggressive behavior increased in likelihood as ambient temperature increased from cool to uncomfortably warm (i.e., 80°F or so), and then sharply decreased as temperature further increased. Carlsmith and Anderson created a better defined population of temperature-days than had been used in the past, and applied a sampling procedure that allowed the to get a reasonable estimate of the temperature distribution in the U.S. over a several year period, and then applied this to previously published data on riots in the U.S. during the 1960s and early 1970s. Their results clearly showed that the likelihood of a riot breaking out did not decline during hot days, but instead continued to climb well past the previously-believed peak.
Since that initial article, Dr. Anderson became the foremost authority on temperature effects on aggression, based on his many field studies, several key laboratory experiments, and theoretical developments made by him and his colleagues. His key articles have been published in Psychological Bulletin (1989, 1992), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1979, 1984, 1987, 1996, 1997, 2005), Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (1995, 1996), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (2000), and Current Directions in Psychological Science (2001). More recently, Dr. Anderson has expanded the temperature/aggression domain to the study of the implications of global warming on violence. In one recent chapter, for example, Anderson and DeLisi (2011) showed that there are at least three separate ways that rapid global warming will likely increase violence rates around the world, some of which has already been documented. The three are: (a) the standard heat-aggression effect; (b) increased war and fighting resulting from resource competition and eco-migration; and (c) increased proportion of the adolescent and adult population with known violence risk factors, the result of poor childhood nutrition and a wide array of environmental factors at play during pregnancy and childhood. The APS Observer recently published an update of those key ideas (2017).

5. General Aggression Model (GAM). In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Dr. Anderson began attempting a broad theoretical integration of the many mini-theories of human aggression. The social-cognitive revolution as well as developments in biological and neurological psychology set the stage for this development. Many scholars in various domains were often discussing the same basic aggression phenomena, but using different language. Dr. Anderson's team conducted a number of studies designed to test some of these ideas about automatic versus controlled cognitive processes, their relationship to anger and other aggression related emotions, and on how personality and situational combine to create conditions that elicit behavior intended to harm another person, i.e., aggression. Their studies included situational manipulations such as pain (versus no pain), uncomfortable temperatures (versus comfortable), insults versus no insults versus praise, images of guns versus mountains, and violent versus nonviolent media. Individual difference variables have included trait aggression, Big 5, adult attachment styles, and others.
Initially, Dr. Anderson's team put together a model that they called the "General Affective Aggression Model," but it became apparent that some standard aggression manipulations increased aggression without directly influencing aggressive affect. Therefore, when in 2002 Anderson and Bushman published their Annual Review of Psychology article on human aggression literature they called the integrated model the "General Aggression Model." It was an integration of social learning theory (e.g., Bandura, social cognitive theory (e.g., Mischel), cognitive neoassociation theory (e.g., Berkowitz), script theory (e.g., Huesmann), social information processing theory (e.g., Dodge), excitation transfer theory (e.g., Zillmann), and a host of other personality, social, and biological models too numerous to mention. To date, this article has received over 3600 citations. As noted earlier, one key aspect of GAM was borrowed directly from Dr. Anderson's earlier work on attribution theory and explanation processes, heavily influenced by other attribution scholars as well as appraisal and emotion scholars.
One key advantage of GAM is that by putting individual differences, personality traits, and environmental (situational) factors all into a common language, it becomes clearer to theorists just how different types of factors may interact in producing various aggression-related outcomes. For example, in one set of studies Dr. Anderson and colleagues showed that different developmental experiences (growing up in a hunting versus nonhunting family) result in different knowledge structures about hunting and assault guns, and that such knowledge structure individual differences determine whether pictures of a hunting gun or of an assault gun are likely to increase aggressive thoughts and later aggressive behavior (with Bartholow, Benjamin, Carnagey, 1998, 2005). In other words, GAM is able to theoretically link developmental processes, personality differences, and aggressive cognition responses to a specific stimulus type, in order to predict aggressive responses to a minor provocation.
Subsequent articles and book chapters have expanded GAM, applying it to topics such as aggressive personality disorders, violent crime and delinquency, intimate partner violence, male on female aggression and violence, global warming consequences on violence, development of violence-prone (and nonviolent) children and adolescents, the cycle of violence at dyadic as well as group and nation levels. And of course, it has been used to integrate the voluminous literature on media violence effects. Additional ways of how genetic and other biological factors interact with environmental factors have been discussed in more recent theoretical papers (e.g., with DeLisi in 2011; with DeWall & Bushman in 2011 & 2012). Articles that report the development, testing, refinement, and application of GAM range from psychology to medicine, include top journals, edited volumes, and a book focused on violent video game effects (with Gentile & Buckley, 2007).

6. Media effects. In recent years, Dr. Anderson's most visible work has been his team's research on media violence effects. Dr. Anderson published the first comprehensive meta-analysis on violent video game effects in 2001, with Brad Bushman, in Psychological Science. That article is now a citation classic (over 2400 in Google Scholar), and is still downloaded/read more than most articles each month. For example, in November of 2016, it was the 6th most frequently downloaded/viewed article, even though it is more than 15 years old.
Interestingly, Dr. Anderson wasn't trained in media effects research, and his early interest in this domain was primarily as a means to test hypotheses (both individual differences and short term priming effects) related to GAM. Since his initial video game (1995) and movie (1997) studies, he has published dozens of original empirical articles, several major reviews, and numerous other papers on the topic. In 2003, he and the expert NIMH panel published their finding in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, mainly because the Surgeon General's office revised their original report and buried much of it in an appendix. That article has now garnered over 1100 citations. Dr. Anderson's research team has involved scholars from many countries, including Japan, China, Singapore, Germany, Romania, Croatia, and Australia. For example, in 2008 his team published the first cross-cultural comparative longitudinal study of violent video game effects, in the journal Pediatrics; it found similar effects on Japanese and American children. Most recently, his team have reported similar media violence effects on aggression across 7 nations, and similar underlying processes linking media violence exposure to aggression, mediated by aggressive cognitions and empathy (in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2017).
In 2010, his team published the most recent comprehensive meta-analysis of violent video game studies; it found consistent harmful effects on aggressive behavior, aggressive thinking, and aggressive affect, among other findings (in Psychological Bulletin). That study found these effects across research design (experimental, cross-sectional, longitudinal) and across Eastern and Western cultures. That article already has over 1500 citations.
In recent years Dr. Anderson's research team also has pioneered work on the potential positive effects of playing prosocial video games (2009, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin); effects of anti-Arab/Muslim media exposure on anti-Arab/Muslim attitudes, feelings, and beliefs 2013, (Psychology of Violence); and potential harmful effects of fast-paced violent media on attention, executive control, and aggression (2010, Psychophysiology; 2014, Aggressive Behavior). Other outlets for his media effects work have included Science, top APA journals (e.g., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, American Psychologist), top APS journals (Current Directions in Psychological Science, Psychological Science), and top medical journals (Pediatrics).

Primary Interests:

  • Aggression, Conflict, Peace
  • Applied Social Psychology
  • Causal Attribution
  • Personality, Individual Differences
  • Research Methods, Assessment
  • Social Cognition

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Craig A. Anderson
Department of Psychology
W112 Lagomarcino Hall
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa 50011-3180
United States

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