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Risky Business

The Harm of Violent Rhetoric on Ethics

Cartoon image of a man screaming with a bullet coming out of his mouth

Despite what we’ve heard since we were children, words really can be as harmful as sticks and stones—especially if those words are harsh, angry, or violent.

Unfortunately, violent language permeates much of our modern lives, from sports press conferences and motivational speeches to children’s games and religious sermons. Sure, we’ve witnessed hateful language on social media, but we don’t often recognize the pervasiveness of more subtle violent words and phrases in our daily routines. Don’t believe it? See if these sound familiar:

  • Bring out the big guns.
  • Set your sights on the prize.
  • Rally the troops.
  • “Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war.”1

These oft-used phrases seem harmless enough. We say or sing them frequently—certainly not with the intent to inflict violence on others. However, though we may not intend violence, the ever-present violent wording is doing actual harm to our resulting attitudes and behaviors, according to a growing body of research from David Wood, a BYU Marriott associate professor of accounting and expert on ethics.

Wood, along with BYU political science associate professor Joshua Gubler, has produced a trio of studies that show the blood in the water. Whether a CEO is declaring “thermonuclear war” on the competition or politicians are talking about taking the fight to the opposing party, the professors’ studies are showing that violent language is causing us to play fast and loose with ethics and become more aggressive in our personal interactions.

“Violence has saturated our culture, and we need to step back and explore what the effects of this are,” Gubler says. “Exposure to violence, even if just through language, seems to be connected to aggression, and that aggression makes us more willing to cut corners to get to a goal and more extreme in our political views. Words matter.”

Peaceful Beginnings

Just how an accounting professor and a political science professor ended up working together on research about violent language seems like a detail worth sharing. Wood, after all, has research expertise in technology and internal auditing, while Gubler specializes in political psychology and the Middle East.

The two first met in 2011 when Gubler moved into Wood’s ward in Orem. The two worked together first in the Young Men organization and then in the bishopric, and their research interests became part of their almost-daily conversations. It was while they were discussing the annual BYU–University of Utah football game that they began to formulate the idea for research on violent rhetoric. The rivalry game, which pits two of the largest universities in the state of Utah against each other, is nicknamed the Holy War.

Wood had read a Wall Street Journal article that analyzed rivalry games and found them to have more personal foul penalties than regular football games.2 He got in touch with the paper’s editors and asked if they could provide the data they compiled for the story; he wanted to see if violently worded rivalry games—think the Civil War (Oregon vs. Oregon State), the Border War (Kansas vs. Missouri), or the Backyard Brawl (Pittsburgh vs. West Virginia)—had even more penalties than other rivalry games.

Sure enough, the data showed that rivalry games with a violent name have a higher number of personal foul penalties than rivalry games with more neutral names. “We said, ‘Wow, there is something going on here,’” says Wood. “This violence angle is meaningful.”

Wood and Gubler are not the first to consider the impact of violence on humans—nor do they claim to be. They do, however, claim a connection to one of the foremost thinkers and researchers in this particular space: Ohio State University professor of communication and psychology Brad J. Bushman.

A National Expert on Violence

Bushman has studied the causes, consequences, and solutions of human aggression and violence. As a result of his research, several myths have been challenged, including the ideas that violent media has a trivial effect on aggression, violent people suffer from low self-esteem, and violence and sex sell products. Bushman’s research, which has been published in more than two hundred peer-reviewed journal articles and cited more than thirty-five thousand times, earned him an invitation to be part of President Barack Obama’s committee on gun violence; he has also testified before Congress about youth violence.

“We know that exposure to violent media has a number of effects,” Bushman says. “It increases angry feelings and aggressive thoughts and decreases feelings of empathy and compassion for others. There’s a large body of evidence indicating the harmful effects of violent media.”

Cartoon man pushing a cannon into a conference room

One of Bushman’s most recent studies shows with shocking clarity the ways in which violent media can impact kids. Two groups of eight- to twelve-year-old children were shown twenty-minute clips from two PG-rated movies: National Treasure and The Rocketeer. One group saw unedited clips where guns were used, and the other group saw the same clips but with the guns edited out. The children were then put in a room with toys and allowed to play for a while. The room also held a cabinet that contained a real—but disabled—gun.

The youth who watched the movie clips with guns held the gun longer than those who saw the edited clips (an average of 53.1 seconds vs. 11.1 seconds). In addition, the same group actually pulled the trigger on the unloaded gun an average of 2.8 times compared to 0.01 times for the other group.3

“One kid put the gun against another kid’s temple and pulled the trigger,” says Bushman, whose research has found that gun violence in PG-13-rated films has more than tripled since 1985.4 “The children were engaging in pretty risky behavior with a real gun.”

In the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Bushman led a group of aggression scholars to create a report listing the known risk factors for youth violence. Bushman was joined by Sarah Coyne, a BYU associate professor from the School of Family Life, to provide policy makers with the science needed to make decisions on the increasing amount of violence among youth.

The results of the study listed seven environmental risk factors for youth violence, including easy access to guns and media violence.5 That report was sent to President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, every member of Congress, and every state governor in the country.

“The science suggests that exposure to media violence is a small but significant risk factor in subsequent youth violence,” Coyne says. “Many things contribute to youth violence—being in a gang, growing up in an abusive home, genetics, access to guns—so media violence is not the only reason why people choose to be violent. But more than a thousand studies now suggest that media violence is one important factor and, importantly, one that we can modify and is under our control.”

Shining a Light on Harmful Words

All of this well-established literature on the effects of violent media from Bushman, Coyne, and others piqued Wood’s and Gubler’s interest, but it seemed to them there were still important questions that remained unanswered when it came to everyday violence.

After all, they surmised, most people aren’t going to watch a movie such as Rambo and immediately head out to rob or hurt someone. Instead, the two professors hypothesized, violence and violent words were having effects on a subconscious level.

“The link between violent media and aggression is well documented,” Wood says. “But we wanted to know about the impact of lower levels of mistreatment of others. Specifically, we wanted to know, Does violence influence ethical decision-making?”

So the curious pair formulated a plan: Wood brought his expertise on business ethics to the table, Gubler applied his knowledge on the psychology of aggression, and a third author, Nathan Kalmoe—a colleague of Gubler’s from his PhD program at the University of Michigan—shared his depth of experience gained by studying the power of metaphors.

The result was three high-profile studies over the course of three years that illustrated how violence and violent rhetoric affect ethical behavior—both personal and business ethics—and how violent rhetoric impacts partisan politics. Key findings confirmed the professors’ suspicions that there was something happening below the surface:

  • There is a link between exposure to human violence and unethical business behavior.
  • Politicians using violent rhetoric polarize those on the other side of the political divide.
  • Companies headquartered in violent neighborhoods are more likely to fraudulently misstate financial statements and exhibit more aggressive financial reporting.
  • CEOs who try to motivate employees by using violent rhetoric toward competitors spur rival employees to be less ethical toward their own organizations.
  • Common violent metaphors—fight, battle, etc.—drive aggressive partisans further apart on issues.

The underlying truth to all these findings, Wood likes to point out, is that words matter, and not just on the playground or in personal relationships. Words matter in business, in government, and in virtually every other professional setting. Wood observes that not understanding that words matter can have damaging effects on any company.

“Business executives use violent language all the time,” Wood says. “They say, ‘We’re going to kill the competition,’ or ‘We’re going to war.’ Our research shows they should think twice about what they’re saying.”

For example, in one study, Wood and Gubler found that people were more likely to post fake negative reviews and ratings for a competitor or their competitor’s product when a rival CEO used violent rhetoric against them. While a contentious declaration of war on the competition may seem like a great way to motivate your employees, that very act may cause significant harm to your organization as it spurs employees from competing companies to play dirty when fighting back.

According to Wood and Gubler, the research supports the notion that moral justification for wrongdoing is easier when somebody else throws the first punch.

“This language primes a certain set of associations related to conflict, war, and battle,” Gubler says. “Things that are not normally allowed become a little more acceptable. You might not lie, cheat, or bend moral rules in a normal context, but if it’s war, then there might be more justification for that.”

What’s really disconcerting, adds Wood, is that people don’t think they’re being unethical in these situations.

Fortunately, this intriguing work—and its results—has not gone unnoticed. The team’s research has garnered local and national media coverage, including an in-depth story in The Washington Post,6 and has landed them a recent interview on the Rework Podcast.

Although reactions to the media coverage have been mostly positive, Wood and Gubler are still miffed by how much pushback there is to this line of social science.

They’re not alone.

Breaking Through to a Mass Audience

Craig Anderson has been doing research on aggression for several decades now. The Iowa State University Distinguished Professor of Psychology has spent a good portion of that time looking specifically at video game violence and its effects on youth and children. His research has proven conclusively that exposure to violent video games makes more-aggressive and less-caring kids, regardless of their age, sex, or culture.

Person looking at a video game

According to Anderson, his findings have made him a target of hardcore video gamers and others in the video game industry. Anderson keeps a collection of all of his hate mail because he believes it may be worth a study of its own somewhere down the line. He also notes that several of his colleagues have decided to get out of the business of researching media or the effects of video game violence because they don’t want to deal with the harassment.

But Anderson is up to the job. In fact, much of his research has been backed by fellow researchers, and he is well respected across the board by his academic peers. His decades of research have “quite convinced” him that the effects of violent media are real and large enough for us to be concerned about them.

“When people hear extreme statements, violent kinds of statements, it sort of changes the way they think and eventually the way they act,” Anderson observes. “For some people, violent language resonates with them but not in a good way. If you start demonizing particular groups, then you get more hate crimes. In today’s hostile political environment, hate crimes have increased for immigrants, religious people, LGBT people, and others.”

Anderson’s research aligns with the research that Wood and Gubler have published in the arena of violent rhetoric.

Wood and Gubler’s research has found that politicians who use violent language—even if it is subtle—motivate a significant portion of their base to take more extreme policy positions, thus increasing political polarization. Meanwhile, the politicians who embrace that violent rhetoric become even more extreme in their political views.

Luckily, and unlike Anderson, their research findings haven’t put a target on the BYU duo, if you’ll excuse the violent figure of speech. It has, however, engrained in them a greater desire to capture the public’s attention, so much so that Gubler has shifted his research in the past year to focus on what makes people listen to something that clashes with their current mind-set.

A Battle Worth Fighting

Some of Wood and Gubler’s research has manifested itself in their own homes as they’ve interacted with and provided guidelines for their own children. Both Wood and Gubler have become much more sensitive to the amount of violence and violent language in everyday life. This sensitivity has made them pickier about what movies they watch or let their children watch and what type of music or other media is consumed in their own homes.

“It is hard, especially if you have children saying they’re the only ones in the world that haven’t seen this cool new movie,” Wood acknowledges. “A lot of the violence in media is entertaining, and our kids, just like most everyone else, don’t want to hear or think about its negative effects.”

Still, to Wood and Gubler, the battle is worth fighting.

Gubler concedes that their approach may be a bit extreme for some, but he believes everyone should take stock of the violence surrounding them. At the very least, he suggests, people should try a violence fast and become more aware of how often something influences them.

“When you eat bad food, you have bad outcomes,” Gubler says. “People need to expose themselves to less violence. There are effects outside of your consciousness; what you take in affects what you put out. People may be surprised at how saturated the world is with violent imagery and violent rhetoric.”


Written by Todd Hollingshead
Illustrations by Tavis Coburn

About the Author
Todd Hollingshead is a media relations manager in BYU’s University Communications Office. A former journalist, Hollingshead holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in mass communications, both from BYU. He lives in Springville, Utah, with his wife, Natalie, and their four children.


  1. Sabine Baring-Gould, “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” Hymns, no. 246.
  2. Darren Everson, “What’s the Dirtiest College-Football Rivalry?” The Count, Wall Street Journal, 18 October 2011,
  3. Kelly Dillon and Brad Bushman, “Effects of Exposure to Gun Violence in Movies on Children’s Interest in Real Guns,” jama Pediatrics, 6 November 2017,
  4. Brad Bushman et al., “Gun Violence Trends in Movies,” Pediatrics, 11 November 2013,
  5. Brad Bushman et al., “Risk Factors for Youth Violence: Youth Violence Commission, International Society for Research on Aggression (ISRA),” Aggressive Behavior, 17 June 2018,
  6. J. D. Harrison, “New Study Reveals the Powerful and Bizarre Effects of Using Violent Rhetoric at Work,” On Small Business, Washington Post, 23 July 2014,

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