Censorship

Jason Vorhees, Crime Fighter

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Opponents of efforts to regulate or censor violent entertainment sometimes argue that, rather than encouraging imitation, it reduces real-life violence by providing a release for aggressive impulses. Here's a new twist on that argument: A paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, which was held over the weekend, suggests that violent movies reduce violent crime not by providing catharsis but by keeping young men with violent tendencies occupied:

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," said one of the authors of the study, Gordon Dahl, an economist at the University of California, San Diego. "In the short run, if you take away violent movies, you're going to increase violent crime."

Looking at crime rates and movie audience data, Dahl and his co-author, U.C.-Berkeley economist Stefano DellaVigna, found that "on days with a high audience for violent movies, violent crime is lower." They estimate that the difference amounts to about 1,000 fewer assaults per weekend.

The New York Times notes that Dahl, a Mormon who does not let his children watch violent films,  "recently purchased a DVD player that strips out brutal or sexual images" and "eschews violent films himself, professing discomfort even with 'Schindler's List,' the epic portrayal of the Holocaust." It also quotes a psychologist who claims "there are hundreds of studies done by numerous research groups around the world that show that media violence exposure increases aggressive behavior."

In a 20000 column, I explained why such statements are misleading. Jib Fowles analyzed "the bum rap against TV violence" and the motivations behind it in the March 2001 issue of reason

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  1. In a 20000 column, I explained why such statements are misleading.

    I’m looking forward to reading it in 17,992 years.

  2. In a 20000 column

    Wow, you can travel through time and space? You should be on Heroes.

  3. Sorry, Epsiarch, mine was 10 characters shorter.

  4. Curse both of you! That’s what I get for making a snarky comment in the Marketplace thread.

  5. Much as I hate the movie censors, I’m not sure I take the results of this study at face value. Correlation doesn’t equal causation. The obvious possibility is that the weather has an opposite effect on movie attendance and violent crime; lousy weather means more movie attendance and less violent crime (and crime in general).

  6. And I thought that I was the only time traveler here [sigh] . . .

    BTW, it was a great column IIRC. I vowed to stop traveling through time in 2035 and I am not going to break that vow for this.

    Episiarch,

    I think he just travels through time, not space too.

  7. I think he just travels through time, not space too.

    Can’t have one without the other, Guy. Physics.

  8. A book I read recently quoted a study that found that people who watch sports experience similar brain patterns as those who participate in sports. They also found that they get the same cognitive benefits, even though they get none of the physical benefits. It wouldn’t be surprising if it worked as well for pretend sports or pretend violence. My hypothesis would be then, that those who cognitively crave violence can satisfy it with pretend violence. Of course, I may be projecting in that I generally find violent movies to be very gratifying and cathartic, but not non-supernatural horror.

  9. professing discomfort even with ‘Schindler’s List,’ the epic portrayal of the Holocaust.”

    Wasn’t discomfort kind of the whole point of ‘Schindler’s List’? It’s not like you can make a light-hearted romantic comedy about the Holocaust.

  10. It’s not like you can make a light-hearted romantic comedy about the Holocaust.

    Life is Beautiful?

  11. hier (PDF!PDF!PDF!) is the paper.

    actually, for those interested, check out the program for the AEA, hier.

    It’s not like you can make a light-hearted romantic comedy about the Holocaust.
    “Arbeit Macht Spass”?

    [ducks]

  12. In a 20000 column, I explained why such statements are misleading.

    Translation: I explained my bias on the issue.

    I am not saying that the issue is decided, but there is quite a bit of evidence that children act according to role models and that those role models can be fictional.

    Here’s an interesting longitudinal study.
    Identification with aggressive TV characters and perceived realism of TV violence also predict later aggression.
    http://bama.ua.edu/~sprentic/672%20Huesmann%20et%20al.%202003.pdf

    And a randomized controlled trial for reducing violence.
    Conclusions An intervention to reduce television, videotape, and video game use decreases aggressive behavior in elementary schoolchildren. These findings support the causal influences of these media on aggression and the potential benefits of reducing children’s media use.

    http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/155/1/17

  13. It’s not like you can make a light-hearted romantic comedy about the Holocaust.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118799/

  14. Here’s an interesting longitudinal study.
    Identification with aggressive TV characters and perceived realism of TV violence also predict later aggression.
    http://bama.ua.edu/~sprentic/672%20Huesmann%20et%20al.%202003.pdf

    Ah, the infamous Huesmann study. I tear that one apart here.

  15. Neu Mejican, stop copying me, you poser.

  16. It’s not like you can make a light-hearted romantic comedy about the Holocaust.

    Really?

  17. It’s not like you can make a light-hearted romantic comedy about the Holocaust.

    There is “Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.”
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071650/

  18. Don’t like free speech and the first amendment? Declare speech a “product”, find the “product” to be faulty (it “promotes” violence), and then we no longer debate free speech as a moral issue, but simple as a matter of “consumer protection”. And since the “progressives” of the world will knee-jerk support any form of “consumer protection”, you win.

    If a researcher was dedicated to “proving” that Islam promoted violence, we would all immediatly assume that person is trying to present a case for restricting freedom of religion. If a researcher was dedicated to “proving” that black people were more violent than white people, we would assume that they are promoting some sort of racist hate ideology. These things would immediatly set off alarm bells in our mind, and we would look at that sort of research with extreme scrutiny and skepticism, to say the least.

    So, when researchers try to show a link between certain types of free-expression and violence, every reasonable person would treat that research with extreme skeptism… our “this person has an agenda” alarm bells should go off. Thus far, there has been no research whatsoever that shows a link between violent fiction and real-life violence, that would in any way justify restricting freedom of speech or cause us to not believe the researcher had an anti-free-speech anti-democracy agenda.

  19. Episiarch

    Oops…missed your post.
    Great movie, I thought.

    Rex Rhino,

    I agree that there is no reason to think that even if research showed that all violent behavior was caused by violent art (movies, books, video games, whatever) this would justify restrictions on free-speech.

    I have a problem, however, with the knee-jerk response to this kind of research (Sullum is particularly bad about it in his posts).

    Research demonstrating/ suggesting that X is a problem can be accurate and still not justify a specific response to that finding.

    Too often, however, I see a response to research demonstrating X (or suggesting X, whatever) that responds…No, X is not true. X is not really a problem.

    The better response is: If X is true, solution Y is not appropriate for reason Z.

    The science will move forward despite the political argument. The political argument should be about possibilities and perceptions.

    If X is perceived to be a problem by a large enough number of people, a solution will be demanded. Their perception of X as a problem means that X is, in a very real way, a problem.

    A better political strategy for the libertarian cause is to say…we understand why you see X as a problem, but here is why your proposed, government-based solution is not the best answer to problem X.

    Then offer some alternative ideas.

  20. or cause us to not believe the researcher had an anti-free-speech anti-democracy agenda.

    I see no reason to believe that a scientist could not study this stuff for legitimate scientific reasons. Understanding human behavior is a legitimate scientific goal that can occur outside of the political realm.

    Example: I study the effect of maternal drinking on the fetus and the long-term consequences of that drinking on the child’s/person’s development.

    I do not, however, support restricting the mother’s freedom to make this very harmful and idiotic choice.

    I do support efforts to let her know how harmful and idiotic that choice is.

    Same goes here.
    If parents know that too much violent TV may lead to an overly aggressive child, they can make an informed choice about how to structure their child’s media input. The knowledge of the relationship provide by the research does not have an automatic bias politically.

  21. The Day The Clown Cried, indeed…

    BTW, how the hell did Hogan’s Heroes ever make it on the air?

  22. Ok, I was wrong. Apparently, there are more light-hearted movies about the holocaust than there are shallow Jackie Chan vehicles.

    Now will some producer look at my screen play: “When Harry Met Sally and Both Were Used in Horribly Cruel Medical Experiments Before Being Killed and Cremated”

  23. J sub D — you beat me to the “Springtime for Hitler” rebuttal.

  24. prolefeed –
    Even a blind pig …

  25. Franklin Harris,

    It seems that “tear apart” might be overstating what you did.

    There are weaknesses in the study (like all studies), but I don’t see any being pointed out in your blog post.

    Ad Hom attacks against the researcher don’t count.

  26. It also helps to follow the link I provided in my original column.

  27. Ad Hom attacks against the researcher don’t count.

    Unless you count comparing Huesmann to Frederic Wertham (I cheerfully plead guilty to that), I don’t know what you’re talking about.

  28. Franklin Harris,

    The Wertham thing, and the references to Rhodes(iir the name correctly) discussion of his earlier studies.

    The argument “some one says that he has published other studies that were not rigorous” is ad hom and not a valid criticism of the longitudinal study.

  29. Franklin Harris,

    The link within the link gives this response to the linked criticism…

    nstead of objectively evaluating all this evidence Mr. Rhodes prefers to resort to ad hominem attacks and to accuse us of fraud. He picks out one result that we had presented in the mid-1980s from the Columbia County study and asserts that it represents fraud. He maintains that we concluded that early TV violence viewing causes adult criminal behavior on the basis of data about only 3 boys. Mr. Rhodes has his statistics mixed up. Here are the facts. There were 145 boys in that study on whom we had data about how violent was the TV they watched at age 8 and how aggressive and criminal they were at age30. We found a statistically significant correlation of about .20 between the violence those 145 boys were watching on TV at age 8 and their self-reported aggressiveness at age 30. Such an effect size is similar to what has been found for many risks to public health that have generated universal concern, e.g. children’s IQ scores and exposure to lead, lung cancer and passive exposure to cigarette smoke. When we looked at serious violent crimes we found that 3 of the 145 boys had been arrested for such crimes. This is about typical in this country — not many people are arrested for serious violent crimes. To our great concern we found that all three of those boys who had been arrested for serious violent crimes were in the highest 40% of childhood violence viewers and 2 were in the highest 20%. Mr. Rhodes disparages these results as a fraud. Why are they a fraud? We never hid the exact results. We urged people to treat them with caution until they were confirmed by other results. They have been confirmed by other results. We think Mr. Rhodes is blinded by his own biases as we discuss below.

  30. the problem with all such studies is that as there is no controls or randomization, it is impossible to determine if individuals who watch violent movies would engage in violence whether they watched such movies or not (or, because such movies were not available, get really pissed off and go midevil on your ass)

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