Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Crime and violent films

Economists Gordon Dahl of the University of California, San Diego, and Stefano Della Vigna, of University of California, Berkeley, have presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, in which they have claimed that the proliferation of violent films have contributed towards making the streets safer by keeping violence prone individuals inside film theatres. This conclusion goes against conventional wisdom, which argues that the brutal and gory violence depicted in cinemas contribute towards making the society more aggressive, violent and crime prone.

The study claims, "We find that violent crime decreases on days with larger theater audiences for violent movies. The effect is partly due to voluntary incapacitation: between 6PM and 12AM, a one million increase in the audience for violent movies reduces violent crime by 1.1 to 1.3 percent. After exposure to the movie, between 12AM and 6AM, violent crime is reduced by an even larger percent. This finding is explained by the self-selection of violent individuals into violent movie attendance, leading to a substitution away from more volatile activities. In particular, movie attendance appears to reduce alcohol consumption. Like the laboratory experiments, we find indirect evidence that movie violence increases violent crime; however, this effect is dominated by the reduction in crime induced by a substitution away from more dangerous activities. Overall, our estimates suggest that in the short-run violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend. While our design does not allow us to estimate long-run effects, we find no evidence of medium-run effects up to three weeks after initial exposure."

Using a decade of national crime reports, cinema ratings and movie audience data to examine what has happened to rates of violent crime during and immediately after violent films are shown, they say, "Instead of fueling up at bars and then roaming around looking for trouble, potential criminals pass the prime hours for mayhem eating popcorn and watching celluloid villains slay in their stead. You’re taking a lot of violent people off the streets and putting them inside movie theaters. In the short run, if you take away violent movies, you’re going to increase violent crime." Their analysis of the vast data revealed that “on days with a high audience for violent movies, violent crime is lower.” They also claim that over the last decade, the showing of violent films in the United States has decreased assaults by an average of about 1000 a weekend, or 52,000 a year.

Describing these findings as the latest in a series of such studies in the "Freakonomics era", the NYT says, "Practitioners of the dismal science are transcending traditional subjects like labor and markets, and are now crunching numbers to evaluate matters like cheating among sumo wrestlers or the effects of a crackdown on cocaine."

The study is an excellent illumination of the fact that "if you can incapacitate a large group of potentially violent people, that’s a good thing." However, there are a number of other issues that remain unaddressed. How does the violence in the movies influence or impact on the audience, especially those already prone to violence? Does it sow seeds of violent conduct in otherwise non-violent and law abiding youth? Do viewing these movies make potential violent youth or individuals more violent? Do they go out and vent out their impulse for self-realization by indulging in more violent crime than they would otherwise have done?

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