This is the second of three posts on Alberta Siegel’s earliest research on cartoon violence. What began as a simple inquiry to learn which Woody Woodpecker cartoon was the subject of her famous study — the answer to that is Ace in the Hole — has evolved into something much more revealing and surprising. It turns out that modern accounts of the story in respected newspapers and magazines are distorted and consistently wrong.
These repeated accounts have enabled a foundation of credible references to build up. From this has sprung an origin myth that’s been a basis for critics to attack cartoons. I was even guilty of repeating some of these points in a previous post, even just to make light of the controversy. For instance, I now realize that the publication of Alberta Siegel’s article “Film-Mediated Fantasy Aggression and Strength of Aggressive Drive” did not immediately bring cultural awareness or media attention to her seminal study.
She did gain fame for it, but it took time. As it did, a different narrative took shape, one that is perfectly summed up by this excerpt from a March 29, 2002 Washington Post article: “One of the first scientific studies was conducted in 1956 by Alberta Siegel, a Stanford University psychologist who died last fall. She showed that 4-year-olds who watched rowdy Woody Woodpecker cartoons were far more likely to roughhouse afterward than peers who watched the more mellow Little Red Hen.”
Siegel’s notable obituary in the L.A. Times imparts one-third of its column inches to just this, the so-called “roughhouse” revelation about cartoons, something she’d done as a graduate student at the age of 24. This might seem out of proportion to her whole body of work and to her many later professional accomplishments, but the reason for this is that she is now best remembered as a pioneer who launched the enduring field of research on the effects of violence in media. From this humble beginning we can trace thousands of subsequent psychological studies and activists’ efforts to censor cartoons.
There was, however, a very different intent to her work with those kids in the winter of late 1955. As her stepson Jay Siegel told me, she was not looking to draw conclusions but rather to find out “how are we going to study media and kids?” To receive a Ph.D. from her Stanford professors, she needed to demonstrate that she could do this within the rigor of scientific methods. In fact, her professors considered Siegel to be a rising star and it was highly likely that she would join the faculty once she completed her dissertation.She relocated to Pennsylvania with her new husband Sidney and stepson Jay in 1954, understanding that she needed to prove her mettle as a psychologist in order to return to California. Her intent was primarily to secure a job at Stanford that was hers to lose. If she did good work, this tangible reward was waiting for her. And it seems that her interest in this particular line of study was inspired by two people: her husband Sid and Lois Meek Stolz.
Dr. Stolz was her mentor at Stanford who directed the doctoral major in Child Psychology. She was a pioneer in the field of parental behavior and its influence on kids. The attention to television came from Sid and even her stepson Jay, who remembers with glee the day he first watched The Lone Ranger on a home TV. In some ways, there is almost a tacit acknowledgment of TV’s coming role as babysitter—or even surrogate parent—with a student of Stolz conducting a study of this nature.
Before Alberta met Sid, he worked for the Signal Corps during World War II and became an electronics expert. After the war, he got into the emerging field of television and opened a TV repair shop in San Jose at a time when there was only one station broadcasting in the area. He was a divorced dad and his son Jay marveled at the time in 1948 when their household was among the first in the Bay Area to watch the launch of KPIX Channel 5 in their living room.
Sid’s career trajectory in the span of just a few years is one of those American boot-straps stories that people love to hear, but the short version is that he was a high-school dropout who tangled in some rough company before he really applied himself in the post-war years. He eventually enrolled at Stanford, where he crossed paths with Alberta.
She was young and precocious, and she even had her own radio program as a teenager growing up in Pasadena. She rose quickly through her academic studies and chose Stanford for its legendary psychology faculty. Sid was older and he was more familiar with the hustle of a big city than he was with the niceties of university life. At Stanford he was the one who was naïve. Yet these two fell in love and married shortly after.
Jay describes Alberta as a cool stepmom. In fact, she used to let him buy MAD Comics, the precursor to MAD Magazine, in the early 1950s. He related to me that she never had a problem with him reading those, as irreverent as they were for a boy, even while she was conducting her study on cartoon violence. She was always, however, concerned with the amount of movie violence that Jay might watch.
Dr. Siegel did implement methods that future studies would follow, most notably by pointing out the weaknesses in her own work. She stated in her first published report that more research must be done and suggested that follow-up attempts “should be tested with films of greater immediacy and in a situation in which frustration-produced aggression is aroused.”
In her first study, conducted at a Penn State psych clinic, she needed to use film prints because it was the only way she could cue those up to play as soon as the little kids came over in pairs from the nursery school. In fact, she already had television in mind and I can’t help but wonder what role young Jay might have played in this. What must Alberta have thought about her new husband’s son responding with such delight to some of the earliest television shows?
The researcher who really made the biggest impact on studies of TV violence was Al Bandura. In some of his earliest studies, he would project film on to a screen from behind. “And the child was told: this is television,” said Alberta in a 1992 interview with Lloyd Borstelmann, “but that was better than mine. I didn’t even have that. I just showed children movies.” Dr. Bandura was a friend and colleague of Alberta. Years later, he would always point to her at conferences or events and say that she started the whole field.Something I’ve just discovered is that Alberta had not really intended to show Ace in the Hole. As I pointed out in my last post, it’s really a fairly tame entry from among the 1940s Woody Woodpecker cartoons. There are ones directed by Shamus Culhane that were far more violent. And not to mention the casual, sadistic mayhem of MGM’s Tom and Jerry series, among others. As for providing contrast to the gentle Little Red Hen, those would seem like much better choices.
Apparently there was a reason for that. Within the same interview, Dr. Siegel said that “the so-called aggressive film had to be approved by [Penn State’s] chairman of the Child Development department who ran the nursery school. And she wasn’t going to approve any aggressive films that weren’t good for children, you see. And so it was what you might call, kind of a weak treatment, it was a Woody Woodpecker.”
So it turns out that Woody is a bit vindicated in all this. He was, in fact, the compromise or the perfect dupe—violent, but not too violent. So how then did the results, consistently reported over several decades of media accounts, show that kids were “far more likely to roughhouse” when all they were shown was a “weak treatment” of a cartoon? The answer is simple: the results never showed that.
All this time it’s just made for a better story because it’s so easy to imagine that the kids behaved that way after seeing Ace in the Hole. In 1955, the chair of Child Development at Penn State already “knew” the answer to that obvious question. So she censored Alberta Siegel from showing an actual violent cartoon because she “knew” it’d be bad for the kids.
This has become a time-honored tradition, reporting something as fact when it is merely suspicion. Then, acting on those suspicions because it has just been reported as fact. It feeds a convenient cycle of news and moral authority. The most surprising part of this story is that the truth is all there in her 1956 published study, widely available now in digital format, yet it inconveniently doesn’t fit the preferred narrative.
So, in some ways, this story is also a vindication of Dr. Siegel, though the anecdote has served to make her famous. She was certainly never inclined to dispute the findings of those who followed her. As well, she accepted invitations to serve on government panels on this issue, but her own research had quickly gone in a different direction after her auspicious start. Neither Woody Woodpecker nor any other cartoon was ever a subject in her experiments again.
It’s worth pointing out about that little kid named Jay Siegel who was right there in Pennsylvania living with his dad and Alberta. He was effectively witness to history, only a little bit older than those 4-year-olds watching Ace in the Hole in a psych clinic. He too enjoyed comics and violent cartoons and yet today living in Menlo Park as a retired economist—Ph.D, Stanford, 1970—I don’t think anyone would argue that he turned out all right.
Special thanks to LMU Librarians Elisa Slater Acosta, Rhonda Rosen, and Nataly Blas for their help with my research. I’m grateful to Jay Siegel for his recollections and assistance in providing details for this story. I wanted to point any readers interested in more information to see his memorial website to Sid and Alberta Siegel.