Pacifying the Inner Man-Child: New Study on Violent Film Effects

Posted by Charles Reece, January 14, 2008 11:40am | Post a Comment
In the short run, if you take away violent movies, you’re going to increase violent crime.   -- Gordon Dahl



Entering into the contentious world of media effects, economists Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna have found, contrary to the typical social psychological paradigm, that violent crime rates actually dropped during the periods when popular violent movies were released.  Like the majority of economists, they apply the assumption of rational choice theory to movie viewing where the violent-movie audience chooses it over other possibilities, such as going to a bar and getting drunk, slamming their long-necks into someone else's face and/or mauling his girlfriend.  The researchers note that it's not only during the opening weekend that the crime rate drops, but there's no compensatory rise in the following weeks.  In other words, a true reduction of crime occurs (within the short-term sense).

Having had to wade through a bunch of articles on violent media effects in my social psychology classes back in school and as a fairly non-aggressive guy raised on Bronson and Eastwood flicks (thanks, Dad, God rest your soul), I'm pretty skeptical of what's passed for the established consensus of social psychology.  The majority of it tends to rest on fairly artificial procedures where children (as the subjects typically are) watch stuff like Road Runner cartoons or the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and then act out what they saw in playtime situations.  Just as kids who pretend to cook Play-Doh aren't by that act alone likely to have a propensity for being great chefs, these subjects don't seem any more likely to be really violent adults.  And, in fact, the longitudinal studies of long-term effects of violent media are the least consistent  (statistically reliable) aspect of the media-effects paradigm.  I shot a lot of Indians and massacred even more aliens as a child, but I'm about as far from being sympathetic to our imperialist past as one can get, nor would my first inclination upon being visited by beings from another planet be "get the nukes." 

Anyway, Dahl is quick to state that his and DellaVigna's findings don't contradict the consensus, but comment on a facet not dealt with by the psychologists.  As the Times article notes, Dahl is a Mormon, which despite that sect's own violent history, seems to be a way of softening the reception of what many might consider a contradiction to commonsense.  He doesn't let his own kids see violent movies, "professing discomfort with SCHINDLER'S LIST."   How could it be that anyone might find social benefits to violent films without being a blood-thirsty overly intellecual academic?

What I find most fascinating about this result is that it suggests a link between aesthetic views and the choices people make.  The demographic most likely to commit violent acts is young men (I suspect with an unhealthy amount of machismo and little intellectual predilection), which also forms the core audience of much of the popular junk at the local multiplex.  It's not likely violent adults were the ones  raised on the violently sexual transgressive literature of a Bataille or a De Sade (those would be the effete intellectuals with a taste for the naughty).   That would require the effort of not only reading, but finding art not heavily promoted by media conglomerates in this country. Nor is it likely that violent films like I STAND ALONE or AUDITION would have the same distractive effect of TRANSPORTER, since they have subtitles and too much talking between the violent acts.   As Dahl notes, the findings aren't even about movie violence per se, but about any type of film or social activity that captures the attention of the violent young male.  It could be an Adam Sandler comedy, which shares the same target audience as the popular violent films the researchers looked at.  In other words, dumb mass culture keeps the dumb from doing other dumb things which might harm the less dumb.  Break the cycle and raise your  kids with good art, I say.  Stupidity is its own raison d'etre.


Relevant Tags

Rational Choice Theory (1), Stefano Dellavigna (1), Dad (2), Gordon Dahl (1), Adam Sandler (1), Media Effects Paradigm (1), Violence (12), Art (93), Stupidity (2)