Study: Violent Films May Drive Down Crime Rate

A new study arrives at the counter-intuitive conclusion that violent films may reduce crime rates. Economist and co-author Gordon Dahl explains.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Conventional wisdom has long held that watching brutality and mayhem in a movie screen makes at least some people in the audience get violent themselves.

Two economists have done a study that says violence in the movies may actually drive down crime rates - at least for a while.

Gordon Dahl is the lead author of the study. He's a visiting professor at Princeton University and joins us from there.

Professor Dahl, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor GORDON DAHL (Economics, Princeton University): Well, thank you.

SIMON: Explain to us how you reached what I'm sure will strike many as a fairly flabbergasting conclusion.

Prof. DAHL: The conventional wisdom is based on a variety of psychology experiments which are, I think, quite convincing, which is if you expose subjects to a violent film clip versus a non-violent film clip, they have a lot more laboratory aggression. And so the purpose of our study was to see whether or not this increase in laboratory aggression actually translated into increased violence in the streets, when people actually watch movies outside of the laboratory.

Our study is based on looking at dates when blockbuster violent movies are released versus weekends when there is no blockbuster violent movie in the theater.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Prof. DAHL: And what we find is that on weekends where there's a large number of people watching a violent blockbuster movie, like "Hannibal," that would be about 10 million people watching the movie on its opening weekend, violent crime actually falls compared to what, well, compared to a weekend when there is no such big blockbuster violent movie in the theater.

SIMON: Now, is that just simply because people are in the theaters as opposed to on the streets?

Prof. DAHL: It's because at least during the movie, people are in a relatively safe environment and they're not drinking alcohol.

SIMON: Is the same effect achieved if there's a blockbuster that's anything but violent like "Nemo"?

Prof. DAHL: That's a very good question. "Nemo" probably won't do it. But a movie like "Spiderman," which we would call mildly violent, has about the same reduction in violence. And what that tells you is it's not the violence on screen that's causing the reduction in violent crime, it's really that you're putting people in safe environment once again.

Now, why doesn't "Nemo" work to reduce violence? Well, what we show in the paper is that strongly violent movies attract a particular demographic. They attract young men, those who are most at risk for committing violent crime. "Nemo" doesn't attract those types of people into the theater. But you can get a movie like, say, "Waterboy" or Austin Powers in "Goldmember," which has almost no violence in it.

SIMON: You mean Adam Sandler and Mike Myers.

Prof. DAHL: Exactly.

SIMON: Yeah.

Prof. DAHL: If you can attract the same young men with a silly young men movie, then you will reduce violence as well.

SIMON: So it wouldn't have the same effect if you're watching the same violent film in somebody's apartment on cable.

Prof. DAHL: Well, that's an open question, right? If you drink while you're watching it on cable, you may well be more prone to violence, but you're also in a relatively safe environment, in a house...

SIMON: Yeah.

Prof. DAHL: ...potentially.

SIMON: Well, what happens, though, when they leave the movie, the safe confines of the violent movie in the theater, and go to a bar?

Prof. DAHL: Crime also drops then, too. After people leave the movie theater, they're apparently not drunk. And so what we find is that alcohol-related assaults especially fall after movie attendance is over. So between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., crime falls a lot. But it's mostly a drop in alcohol-related crime, which kind of says people aren't going to bars after they finish a movie. They're either going home or doing something else.

SIMON: Did - that something else wouldn't include an act of violence.

Prof. DAHL: Or is much less likely to include an act of violence.

SIMON: I must say the way you describe it, Professor Dahl, it sounds as if the most influential figure in trying to tamp down crime in this country would be Adam Sandler or Mike Myers. I mean, if we can just get them to make a movie a couple of times a year, it could have a terrific effect on the crime rate.

Prof. DAHL: I think that that's certainly one implication of our study. Now, you don't - I don't know how far I want to push that...

SIMON: Yeah.

Prof. DAHL: ...but let's even push it a little further which is, is there other activities besides movies which would attract potentially violent demographic? Would midnight basketball work?

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Prof. DAHL: This study would suggest maybe that's not such a bad idea either.

SIMON: Gordon Dahl, an economist at the University of California, San Diego, now, a visiting professor at Princeton. Thank you so much.

Prof. DAHL: Thank you.

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