Overton Window

Posted on 06/09/2014 by John Poland CEO, Town Hall Foundation
You can think of an Overton Window as a spectrum of ideas, with each idea on a continuum having more and more support/political acceptance; till you get to the level of idea being an official government policy; and then further up the spectrum less and less support again.

Let's look at the usual example: Education policy.

In a typical state, say Michigan, there are a variety of options regarding the State's involvement in children's education.

Each option has a certain level of popular support, which are roughly grouped into 6 bands: Unthinkable/Radical/Acceptable/Sensible/Popular/Policy. The last band is the level of acceptance which is high enough that the government can implement the idea as policy.

The point made by Overton (aside from the bands) is that usually, a very narrow range of ideas on the spectrum have political acceptance.

Acceptability Level      Idea 
Unthinkable              No government involvement in education. 
Radical                  All schools private with government regulation. 
Radical                  Voucher system with public schools. 
Radical                  Tuition tax credit with public schools. 
Acceptable               Homeschooling legal. 
Popular/Policy           Private schools restricted. 
Acceptable               Homeschooling illegal. 
Radical                  Private schools illegal. 
Unthinkable              Children taken from parents and raised as janissaries.

Based on this general concept, we can tackle the issue of the two 12 year old WI girls who brutally stabbed and almost killed another 12 year old girl. It turns out that there is a debate over the direct cause and effect of watching digital content and acting out on the violence of that content

The girls, both from Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb, told investigators they had been planning to kill their 12-year-old friend for months to please Slenderman, a fictional demon-like creature they learned about through a horror website, according to a criminal complaint. They went into the woods, where one girl pushed the victim down and sat on her. The girls then traded the knife back and forth between them before one of them finally tackled the victim again and began stabbing her, according to the complaint. The victim suffered 19 stab wounds; one missed a major artery near her heart by a millimeter, doctors told police.

It appears certain that the two girls, being tried as adults, followed the direction of Slenderman. Many critics complain that the Website could not have been a direct cause because there are conflicting studies. The THF has established the direct cause and effect between music lyrics and childhood development. Let’s look at the state of the conversation for video games.

Children who play violent video games may experience an increase in aggressive thoughts, which in turn, could boost their aggressive behavior, a controversial new study conducted in Singapore suggests.

In the study, children ages 8 to 17 who played a lot of violent video games showed an increase in aggressive behavior such as hitting, shoving and pushing three years later, compared to their behavior at the study start.

Meanwhile, those who decreased the amount of time they spent playing violent video games saw a decrease in aggressive behavior, the researchers said.

The reason for the increase in aggressive behavior was that children who played a lot of violent video games had an increase in aggressive thoughts: for instance, they were more likely to interpret an ambiguous act, like someone bumping into them, as hostile, said study researcher Craig Anderson, a psychologist and professor at Iowa State University. They were also more likely to see aggressive behavior as an appropriate way to respond to provocation, Anderson said.

"Children and adolescents who play a lot of [violent] games change over time, they start to see aggressive solutions as being more reasonable," ways to respond to conflict or frustration, Anderson told Live Science.

However, experts not involved with the study say that the research has flaws, and does not add anything meaningful to the debate over whether violent video games increase aggression, which has been a contentious issue. They also say that other researchers should be allowed to analyze the data, to see if they find the same result.

By extension and following the principles of the Overton Window, the leap from the impact of music on adolescents can be extrapolated to the Website content. The facts are clear, the Website was the cause and effect and we have no business denying that digital content was the cause.

That’s the message for today, more coming.