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Boxing & Sports Fighting Annotated Bibliography

Thirty studies have causally linked the viewing of boxing or other sports fighting with increases in anger, physical violence and even murder. Only one very early and poorly done study reported the viewing of boxing to have a positive effect. One study with boxers themselves showed as increase in negative feelings after boxing, rather than positive ones. Two studies have shown evidence of brain damage in amateur boxers and numerous studies have found this in professional boxers.

One study even finds a correlation between a nation's participation in the Olympics, especially participation in contact sports, and its tendency to go to war.  Almost all of the research is with normal adolescents and young adults. A harmful effect on younger children is strongly suggested in view of the solid evidence of harmful psychological effects on older subjects. 

We know the viewing of violent sports like boxing and professional wrestling has a harmful effect on adults, so it is sensible to assume that children are affected, too.  No one should ever watch such programs.  It is very clear that they teach and promote violence and have real harmful effects on normal viewers.

Professional ice-hockey, because of its intentional promotion of brawling and fighting behavior, is a violent sport, although most of this could be eliminated by changing the rules and the penalties.  Indeed, Olympic ice-hockey is less violent because of better rules and better enforcement.  The violence of pro-hockey is intentional to excite the fans and make money for the owners and the players. 

American football is somewhat less violent, but there is still little doubt that it is a violent sport.  Even grade school and high school players with whom I have spoken tell stories of coaches telling them to try to hurt the other team.  Many of the players take pleasure in hitting players of the opposing side.  They often get angry at other players for hitting them.  I would not allow my son to be a football player.  There are many better sports to choose.  In times of war, the popularity of violent sports increase.  We are seeing that in recent TV viewing rating in the U.S. as well as the popular movies in Arab countries.  It's not a healthy trend.

High school and collegiate wrestling are much less violent because of strict rules and an emphasis on sportsmanship.  Baseball and basketball are essentially non-violent although the intentional throwing of beanballs and high spiking are obvious exceptions.  In professional basketball, there is considerable violent contact which does incite the players.  I don't know how much the fans realize the physical roughness that is occurring, so I am not sure that spectators are harmfully affected at all.


The studies from 1955-1989:

Husman, B.F. (1955). Aggression in boxers and wrestlers as measured by projective techniques. Amer Assoc Health & Physical Educ Research Quarterly 26:421-25.

According to Husman's study, boxers seemed to experience an aggressive anxiety reaction rather than pleasant or positive feelings following boxing. Boxers showed presumptive signs of tension rather than ease, and tests indicated that fighters' aggressive behavior during the match made them feel anxiety or guilt.

Feshbach, Seymour (1961). The stimulating versus cathartic effects of a vicarious aggressive activity. J Abnormal Psychol 63:381-385.

UCLA psychologist Seymour Feshbach was an early and ardent promoter of the Freudian catharsis theory, i.e. that watching violence gets it out of your system and is good for you. Two of his studies from the early 1960's that reported to find that TV violence led to a decrease in aggression have been replicated with more careful controls with the researchers reporting the opposite results. Feshbach has been criticized for letting the people involved in the research know that he expects the violent entertainment to decrease aggression as well as making other research errors that bias his research.

His study on boxing's effect on spectators is no exception. Feshbach reported that angered subjects displayed less aggressive attitudes and tendencies in response to a word test after viewing a violent prizefight film. His is the only study to ever claim to find a positive effect of the viewing of boxing. His work is now very dated and superceded by more carefully implemented studies.

Berkowitz, L. & Rawlings, E. (1963). Effects of film violence on inhibitions against subsequent aggression. J Abnormal & Social Psychol 66:405-412.

University of Wisconsin students watched two alternative introductions to a highly aggressive boxing film. In one film the boxer was represented as being a villainous character well deserving of the beating he received (justified version). Alternatively, he was represented as the victim of unfortunate circumstances, an admirable, generally sympathetic character (unjustified version). The authors found that provoked subjects expressed significantly less hostility toward their previous antagonist after they witnessed the scene of “unjustified” rather than “justified” aggression. The students seeing the justified aggression were temporarily convinced of the righteousness of expressing their anger toward their tormentors. In the less justified condition, however, the sight of the ethically unwarranted aggression aroused aggression anxiety which inhibited the expression of overt hostility.

Berkowitz, L.(1964). The effects of observing violence. Scientific American 210:35-41.

Provoked college students shown a brutal fight scene from a movie were compared to provoked students shown an equally exciting but nonaggressive movie of a track meet. Students viewing the boxing scene showed increased aggression afterward.

Berkowitz, L.(1965). The concept of aggressive drive: Some additional considerations. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 2. New York: Academic Press.

Berkowitz used electric shocks as a measure of aggression toward a confederate posing as a fellow subject. Subjects were again either provoked or not provoked, and were shown a prize fight sequence preceded by the justified or unjustified introduction. Both in terms of the number and the duration of shocks, the highest level of aggression was obtained from provoked subjects who had been given the justified boxing film version. This study suggests that revenge boxing matches such as were present in the 1988 Seoul Olympics would have a still more harmful effect than other boxing matches.

Berkowitz, L. (1965). Some aspects of observed aggression. J Pers & Soc Psychol 2:359-369.

Specific cues associated with a boxing match may help translated aggressive impulses into actual aggressive behavior. College students were either insulted or not insulted by a confederate posing as another student subject. The confederate was introduced either as a speech major or as a college boxer. Subjects then watched a film clip of a violent boxing match or of a neutral control film. After the film, all subjects were given an opportunity to give electric shocks to the confederate within the context of a learning experiment. For the insulted subjects, the largest number of shocks were given in the condition where the boxing film had been shown and the confederate had been represented as a boxer. The association between the target and the characters in the observed violence could be seen as “drawing out” the aggressive responses from the provoked subjects.

Hartman, D.(1965). The influence of symbolically modeled instrumental aggression and pain cues on the disinhibition of aggressive behavior. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Stanford University.

Three versions of an experimental film were prepared. One version had a groups of boys engaged in a vigorous, but nonviolent basketball game. In the two other versions, the game was interrupted by an argument between two of the boys that quickly developed into a one-sided first fight. In one version, the film focused on the attacker's responses, his punching fists, kicks, angry facial expressions, and aggressive verbalizations. In the other, the camera focused on the plight of the victims including close-ups of his face as he was knocked down, his groans, cries, and other expressions of distress. The subject of the study were juvenile delinquents. At the outset, some of them were provoked by overhearing their partner (actually a paid confederate) make a number of highly insulting remarks about them. Other subjects were not provoked, hearing only neutral comments. Following this, subjects were shown one of the three film versions, and then given a sanctioned opportunity, in the context of a learning task, to administer electric shocks to the confederate. For provoked subjects, the effect of the aggressive film versions was to increase the subjects' aggressiveness. These subjects were, in fact, most aggressive following the pain-cues film. For the non-angered subjects, however, the pain cues film actually reduced the level of aggression. Witnessing suffering may have sensitized subjects to the possible serious consequences of their own punitive urges.

Berkowitz, L. & Geen, R.G.(1966). Film violence and the cue properties of available targets. J Personality Soc Psychol 3:525-530.

College males saw a Kirk Douglas boxing film clip or a non-violent one. Half were provoked by a second student, and half were not. The second student was a secret assistant to the researchers. In half the instances the student assistant said his name was Kirk Anderson and half, Bob Anderson. Seeing the boxing film, being provoked, and giving shocks to Kirk rather than Bob all increased the delivery of shocks to the student assistant.

Geen, R.G. & Berkowitz, L.(1966). Name-mediated aggressive cue properties. J Personality 34:456-465.

College males saw the Kirk Douglas film clip where Kirk, as Midge Kelly, was shown to be brutally beaten by a fighter name Johnny Dunne. Students gave a second student more intense shocks if he was named Bob Kelly rather than Bob Riley and less intense shocks if he was name Bob Dunne.

Berkowitz, L. & Geen, R.G.(1967). Stimulus qualities of the target of aggression: A further study. J Personality Soc Psychol 5:364-368.

A boxing scene from a Kirk Douglas movie increased the tendency towards aggression against a second student, but the name of the second student didn't make any difference if his name was not mentioned until the film was over.

Geen, R.G. & Berkowitz, L.(1967). Some conditions facilitating the occurrence of aggression after the observation of violence. J Personality 35:666-676.

108 male college students at the University of Wisconsin were in an experiment, one at a time. The students completed an easy puzzle, tried to complete a frustrating puzzle, or were insulted in addition to trying to complete the frustrating puzzle by a fellow “student” named either Bob or Kirk Anderson. They then saw either a violent prize fight film or a one-mile foot race. The victim of the prize fight was named Kirk. The student then was directed to administer electric shocks to his fellow “student” whenever he made an error in a separate learning task. The frustration and, even more so, the insult conditions led to higher levels of shocks, especially after the boxing film. Students who had seen the boxing film were more likely to give their fellow “student” more intense shocks when the fellow “student's” name was Kirk, instead of Bob.

Hoyt, J. (1967). Vengeance and self-defence as justification for filmed aggression. Unpublished master's thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1967.

College students serving in the context of a learning experiment were provoked by receiving an unfairly large number of electric shocks from a confederate posing as a naive subject. Following the presentation of the fight film, subjects were given an opportunity to give shocks to the confederate as punishment for the confederate's errors on a learning task. Four conditions were formed by the combination of the presence or absence of two different types of aggression justification in the film introduction. In one condition, the justification was based on the vengeance motive--the eventual victor was seen as avenging an unfair beating that he had previously received. Justification in a second condition was based on the self-defense motive with the victor portrayed as defending himself in a “kill or be killed situation.” A third condition was formed by a combination of these two motives, and a fourth condition served as a control group with no mention of any justifying circumstances. The lowest level of postfilm aggression in terms of the number and duration of shocks given occurred where no justification was proved. The neutral introduction or the self-defense justification had the smallest number of shocks. Subjects had been unfairly abused by the confederate were influenced to violent action by motives similar to those portrayed in the film.

Geen, R. & O'Neal, E.(1969). Activation of cue-elicited aggression by general arousal. J Personality & Soc Psychol 11:289-292.

Male college students were shown either a boxing film clip or a film clip depicting nonaggressive sporting activities. All subjects were then put in the position of giving electric shocks to another student under an appropriate pretext. While they gave the shocks, half of the men in each film groups were put in a state of somewhat stressful arousal by having to listen to a loud continuous nose over a pair of earphones. The highest level of aggression, in number and intensity of shocks given, was shown by the students who received both the aggressive film and the stress-producing noise. Stress-produced arousal may serve to activate latent aggressive responses produced by aggressive cues in the sport of boxing. However, even non-provoked men who had seen the boxing film showed some increase in aggressively punitive behavior.

Goranson, R.E.(1969). Observed violence and aggressive behavior: The effects of negative outcomes to the observed violence. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin.

College male subjects were provoked by having a confederate give them an unfairly large number of shocks as a judgment of their task performance as “learners” in a procedure disguised as an experiment in education. Each subject then saw a film of a highly aggressive boxing match with a taped ending given in one of three alternative versions. The first version stressed a positive outcome with the protagonist leaving the ring in good physical condition, and later going on to a life of success and fame. An alternate version depicted a negative outcome with stress on the defeated protagonist boxer's injuries, a cerebral hemorrhage, extreme agony, and painful death although these injuries were not linked directly to the fight. A control version merely recapitulated the events of the fight. When subjects were subsequently put in the position of giving shocks to a “learner,” the intensity of shocks they chose to administer was significantly reduced by exposure to the negative outcome version. Since anger and tension levels were similar in each condition, the perception of the horrible effects of violence served to sensitize the subjects to the potential harm that they themselves might inflict.

Hartmann, D.P. (1969). Influence of symbolically modelled instrumental aggression and pain cues on aggressive behavior. J Pers & Soc Psychol 11:280-288.

Berkowitz, L.(1970). Experimental investigations of hostility catharsis. J Cons Clin Psychol 35:1-7.

Another study of a boxing film clip showed increased aggression in college-aged viewers after watching the boxing scenes.

Tannenbaum & Goranson, R.E. (1970). In Richard E. Goranson, Media Violence and aggressive behavior: A review of experimental Research. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Vol. 5. New York: Academic Press. Pg. 21.

College male subjects were provoked by having a confederate give them an unfairly large number of shocks as a judgment of their task performance as “learners” in a procedure disguised as an experiment in education. Each subject then saw a film of a highly aggressive boxing match with a taped ending given in one of three alternative versions. The first version stressed a positive outcome with the protagonist leaving the ring in good physical condition, and later going on to a life of success and fame. An alternate version depicted a highly negative outcome with stress on the defeated boxer's injuries, a cerebral hemorrhage, extreme agony, and painful death. A control version merely recapitulated the events of the fight. When subjects were subsequently put in the position of giving shocks to a “learner,” the intensity of shocks they chose to administer was significantly reduced by exposure to the negative outcome version.

Berkowitz, L. & Alioto J.(1973). The meaning of an observed event as a determinant of its aggressive consequences. J Pers & Soc Psychol 28:206-217.

College men watched either a prize fight or a football game and were led to believe that the opponents were either trying to injure each other or were professionals unemotionally engaged in their business. The students were mildly provoked at the beginning of the experiment. When given an opportunity to shock their tormentor at the end of the movie, those who had seen the supposedly hostile sports players were most punitive.

Geen, R. & Rakosky, J.(1973). Interpretations of observed violence and their effects on GSR. J Experimental Research in Personality 6:2899-292.

Men reminded that the fight they were about to see was fictional were less physiologically aroused by it than if they were not reminded.

Leyes, J-P. & Picus, S.(1973). Identification with the winner of a fight and name mediation: Their differential effects upon subsequent aggressive behavior. Brit J Soc & Clin Psychol 12:374-377.

Provoked college students who had been asked to imagine themselves as the victor of the filmed fight shown to them were later most aggressive toward the person who had insulted them.

Turner, C. & Berkowitz, L.(1973). Identification with film aggressor (covert role taking) and reactions to film violence. J Pers & Soc Psychol 21:256-264.

Provoked college males were shown a prize fight film and asked to think of themselves either as the winner, or referee, or with no particular role in mind. Half were also asked to think “hit” each time the victor landed a blow. The men subsequently shocked their tormentor most severely if they had imagined themselves as the fight winner and thought “hit” with each punch.

Berkowitz, L.(1974). Some determinants of impulsive aggression: Role of mediated associations with reinforcements for aggression. Psychol Review 81:165-176,

Eastwood, J.M.(1974). The effects of viewing a film of professional hockey on aggression. Medicine and Science in Sports 6:158-163.

Non-provoked students watching a fight in a hockey film showed no increase or decrease in outward physical aggression. (Sometimes, a difference will not become apparent unless one group is provoked, thus having its threshold to aggression lowered.)

Geen, R.(1975). The meaning of observed violence: Real vs. fictional violence and effects of aggression and emotional arousal. J Research in Personality 9:270-281.

Provoked men shown a supposedly real fight (compared to a supposedly staged one) were more likely to maintain a high level of arousal during the movie and then give their tormentor stronger punishment afterwards.

Belson, W.A.(1978). Television Violence and the Adolescent Boy. Hampshire, England: Saxon House.

A complex field survey of 1700 London adolescent boys found that viewing boxing, pro-wrestling sports programs on TV was associated with being violent in play or aggressive sport although no cause-effect relationship could be deduced with certainty.

Smith, R.E.(1978). Social learning of violence in minor hockey. In F.L. Smoll and R.E. Smith(Eds.), Psychological Perspectives in Youth Sports. Washington: Hemisphere.

A survey of 604 young hockey players were asked: “Have you ever learned how to hit another player illegally in any way from watching professional hockey?” 56% replied affirmatively. They then described numerous details of illegal hockey violence that they had learned and used from seeing it on TV.

Arms, R.L., Russell, G.W., & Sandilands, M.L.(1979). Effects on the hostility of spectators of viewing aggressive sports. Social Psychology Quarterly 42:275-279.

Sloan, L.R.(1979). The function and impact of sports for fans: A review of theory and contemporary research. In J.H. Goldstein (Ed.), Sports, Games, and Play. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1984.

Notre Dame fans became more angry when their team lost in football and basketball. Women attending Notre Dame's amateur boxing matches became increasingly hostile while watching the events. Change in males failed to reach statistically significant levels.

Lennon, J.X., & Hatfield, F.C.(1980). The effects of crowding and observation of athletic events on spectator tendency toward aggressive behavior. J Sport Behavior 3:61-67.

Subjects seeing a fight in a football game showed increased hostility compared to a control group.

Nash, J.E., & Lerner, (1981). Learning from the pros: Violence in youth hockey. Youth & Society 13:229-244. Russell, G.W.(1981). Spectator moods at an aggressive sports event. J Sport Psychol 3:217-227.

A University of Lethbridge study used self-report measures of hostile mood and arousal of male spectators attending an aggressive and shortly thereafter, a relatively nonaggressive hockey game. Both arousal and hostility were found to increase over the course of the fight-filled age. Men at the nonaggressive game showed no change in either measure across the three periods of play.

Singer, J.L. & Singer, D.G.(1981). Television, Imagination, and Aggression: A Study of Preschoolers. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

A very detailed study of 141 New Haven kindergarten students found that fathers, in families with highly aggressive, high TV viewing children, were especially likely to watch sports on TV when compared to other fathers. The watching of sports programs (boxing, hockey, auto racing, and football) by the children was associated with a decreased likelihood of cooperative behavior with peers in overt play.

Berkowitz, L.(1983). The experience of anger as a parallel process in the display of impulsive "angry" aggression. In R.G.Geen & E.I. Donnerstein (Eds), Aggression: Theroretical and empirical reviews.

Gilbert, B. & Twyman, L.(1983). Violence: Out of Hand in the Stands. Sports Illustrated 58(4):62-74.

The article states that nearly all knowledgeable sources agree that fan violence has increased in the past 10-20 years. Dr. John Cheffers of Boston University reported finding with the aid of video equipment that fights among soccer players have triggered violence in the stands in 57% of the cases, while for football and baseball the percentages are 49% and 34%. Boxing is called the most violent of all sports. In the U.S. during the past 10 years, all disturbances in which spectators have attacked each other with knives and guns, with the intent to kill, have occurred in boxing crowds.

Keefer, F., Goldstein, J.H. & Kasiarz, D.(1983). Olympic games participation and warfare. In J.H. Goldstein (Ed.), Sports Violence. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Compares the number of athletes sent to the Olympic Games between 1896 and 1965 by 60 countries and their number of months at war. After correcting for population and population density (which is related to both participation in the Olympics and warfare), it was found that the number of athletes sent to the Olympic Games between 1896 and 1965 by 60 countries and their number of months at war in the period studied. The total number of wars a country got into also predicted the number of athletes it sent to the Olympics. There was a positive relationship between warfare and participation in contact sports in particular (Basketball, boxing, fencing, football, hockey, judo, wrestling). Note: These sports were lumped together and not studied separately.

Lundberg, G.D.(1983). Boxing should be banned in civilized countries. J Amer Med Assoc 249:250.

The editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. George Lundberg notes research on 14 boxers who had been national champions in Finland, eight of them amateurs, which found definite brain damage in four of the professionals and one of the amateurs. All eight amateurs had EEG changes which were signs of possible brain damage (Kaste, Lancet 1982;2:1186-1188). He states that, “Boxing is an obscenity....Boxing, as a throwback to uncivilized man, should not be sanctioned by any civilized society.”

Phillips, D.P.(1983). The impact of mass media violence on U.S. homicides. Amer Sociol Review 48:560-568.

A study of championship heavyweight prizefights from 1973-78 finds that the national homicide rate is increased by 9% the 3rd and 4th days following an average championship fight. This is roughly equal to 10 excess murders stimulated by the average championship fight. More heavily covered fights resulted in more deaths. A study of the homicide rate on the day of and following the Superbowl found no change in the the national homicide rate from 1973-77.

Ross, R.J. et al(1983). Boxers--Computed tomography, EEG, and neurological evaluation. J Amer Med Assoc 249:211-213.

Study of 40 ex-boxers found 53% had signs of long-term brain damage as measured by CT scans. Brain wave EEG testing and CT scans found that the more bouts the fighter had boxed, the greater the frequency of brain damage. The boxers were recruited via a notice in a newspaper sports column. The boxers studied had won 87% of their amateur bouts and 73% of their professional bouts. Only 10% had lost more than they had won. The losers who had not volunteered for the study may have had even more brain damage than this group of winners. 7 of the 13 who had only boxed as amateurs showed signs of brain damage.

Lawrence, G. (1985). The gladiatorial lust for blood: The media and soccer violence. Australian Quarterly 57:192-202.

Guttman, A.(1986). Sports spectators. New York: Columbia University Press.

John H. Chambers & Frank R. Ascione (1987). The effects of prosocial and aggressive videogames on children's donating and helping. J Genetic Psychology 148:499--505. 12/87. (Utah State University, U.S.A.)

Eighty third and fourth graders and 80 7th and eighth graders played a prosocial videogame in which players try to rescue a fantasy creature from danger or an aggressive boxing videogame similar to Mike Tyson's Punchout. They played singly or cooperatively with students randomly assigned. Afterward, each child received $1 in change and was told they could donate some or all of the money to a fund for needy local children. Despite the fact that the videogames lasted only 10 minutes, far less than most children play, those who come to the fantasy character's rescue donated an average of 41 cents compared to 28 cents from the children who punched it out, quite an impressive difference. The aggressive videogame significantly decreased donating behavior although the prosocial game did not increase donating behavior.

Gordon W. Russell, Sherry L. DiLullo & Dany DiLullo (1987). Effects of observing competitive and violent versions of a sport. Presented at the meeting of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Edmonton, Canada, Nov. 1987.

A University of Lethbridge study showed 66 male undergraduate college students viewing either a film clip featuring hockey fights or a film of NHL nonaggressive hockey action or a non-film control who worked a jigsaw puzzle after having first been angered or treated politely by an experimental confederate. Both angered and nonangereed students exhibited highly significant increases in aggressive mood following exposure to the hockey fight film. Only angered subjects who had watched the violent fight-filled hockey match actually physically retaliated against the confederate.

Gordon W. Russell, Veronica E. Horn, & May J Huddle (1988). Male responses to female aggression. Soc Behav & Personality 16:51-57.

University of Lethbridge researchers in Canada looked at the effects on 60 male college students of viewing ficitonal film clips of professional lady wrestlers from an MGM film All The Marbles vs. topless lady mud wrestlers in an X-rated film, vs. a no-film control. Both the professional wrestling and sexualized mud wrestling caused increases in aggression and a decrease in social affection. The films yielded non-significant changes in men's acceptance of interpersonal violence against women, rape myth beliefs or sexual callousness. Actresses in both films were seen as being equally degraded.

Russell, G.W., DiLullo, S.L., & DiLullo, D.(1989). Effects of viewing competitive and violent versions of a sport. Current Psychological Research & Reviews.