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."