NEW ORLEANS — Are movies like “Hannibal” and the remake of “Halloween,” which serve up murder and mutilation as routine fare, actually making the nation safer?
A paper presented by two researchers over the weekend to the annual meeting of the American Economic Association here challenges the conventional wisdom, concluding that violent films prevent violent crime by attracting would-be assailants and keeping them cloistered in darkened, alcohol-free environs.
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.”
Professor Dahl and the paper’s other author, Stefano DellaVigna, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, attach precise numbers to their argument: Over the last decade, they say, the showing of violent films in the United States has decreased assaults by an average of about 1,000 a weekend, or 52,000 a year.
Crime is not merely delayed until after the credits run, they say. On the Monday and Tuesday after packed weekend showings of violent films, no spike in violent crime emerges to compensate for the peaceful hours at the movies. Even a few weeks later, there is no evidence of a compensating resurgence, they say.
The findings in their paper are part of a recent wave of economic research in what might be called the “freakonomics era.” 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.
In this case, the authors have waded into a long-simmering debate about media violence, with their findings likely to attract controversy: Their conclusion seems to collide with the research of psychologists, which has fed concerns by parents and policy makers that brutal imagery in films, video games and other media sows aggression in American life by rendering viewers insensitive to horrific acts.
“There are hundreds of studies done by numerous research groups around the world that show that media violence exposure increases aggressive behavior,” said Craig A. Anderson, a psychologist and director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University. “People learn from every experience in life, and that learning occurs at a very basic level of brain function.”
The study’s authors acknowledge that their research does not refute and in fact lends credence to the findings of laboratory studies. Neither does it address the long-term effects of exposure to violent media, an influence they view as pernicious.
Rather, the research uses 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.
Though such films may indeed stimulate a greater tendency toward aggression in audiences, Professor Dahl offers a rejoinder much favored by economists: Compared to what?
Young men are the most likely to commit violent crimes. In opting to see a movie — even one featuring, say, gang rape or chain-saw amputation — they forgo activities that have a greater tendency to encourage mayhem, like drinking and drug use.
“Economics is about choice,” Professor Dahl said. “What would these people have done if they had not chosen to go and see a movie? Whatever they would have done would have had a greater tendency to involve alcohol. If you can incapacitate a large group of potentially violent people, that’s a good thing.”
Professor DellaVigna added, “It’s not as if these people watching violent movies would otherwise be home reading a book.”
But critics of violent media worry that the study, with its focus on immediate effects, could distract policy makers from troubling signs of long-term harm to society and leave parents thinking that violent films may be the least bad way for their adolescent children to occupy leisure hours.
“The study’s premise strikes me as somewhat goofy,” said Melissa Henson, senior director of programs at the Parents Television Council, a media watchdog based in Los Angeles. “I’d hate for people to walk away with the message that, ‘Oh, I ought to send my son to watch violent movies so they won’t go out and drink or do drugs and commit violent crime.’ What about going to the Y.M.C.A. and playing basketball, or after-school activities?”
Professor Dahl seems an unlikely advocate for the crime-snuffing potential of sadistic cinema. A Mormon, he forbids his four children from watching violent films. He recently purchased a DVD player that strips out brutal or sexual images. He eschews violent films himself, professing discomfort even with “Schindler’s List,” the epic portrayal of the Holocaust.
“I don’t like how I feel when I watch them,” he said.
Yet his rejection of violent media was, in a sense, the spark for his inquiry.
In 2005, he and his wife, Katherine, concerned about their children’s viewing, consulted a Web site, kids-in-mind.com, that rates films for violence, sexual content and profanity. Professor Dahl was then working on another project employing a national database of crime reports. He wondered: Could one combine the movie ratings with the crime data and the numbers of people seeing films to explore how crime rates change with exposure to violent movies?
Analyzing the data, the authors found that “on days with a high audience for violent movies, violent crime is lower.”
From 6 p.m. to midnight on weekends — when the largest numbers of people are in theaters — violent crimes decreased 1.3 percent for every million people watching a strongly violent movie, the study found. Violent crimes dropped 1.1 percent for every million seeing a mildly violent film.
In the hours after theaters close — from midnight to 6 a.m. the next day — violent crimes dropped 1.9 percent for every million people at a strongly violent movie, and by 2.1 percent for every million at mildly violent film. Strikingly, the data shows that crimes also drop, though not by as much, when large audiences see nonviolent films that young men find appealing.
In other words, Professor Dahl suggested, Hollywood could help cut crime in more palatable fashion by cutting out the gore while making movies that still attract male teenagers and 20-somethings.
“We need more Adam Sandler movies,” he said. “Even though I’m not a big fan of Adam Sandler, that’s the implication.”