Violent Movies and Clueless Consequentialism

Researchers have recently “proven” that “violent films prevent violent crime by attracting would-be assailants and keeping them cloistered in darkened, alcohol-free environs.” In fact, they estimate that about 52,000 less assaults occur each year because of the showing of violent movies. It’s all part of the “Super Crunchers” trend, where economists “crunch . . . numbers to evaluate matters like cheating among sumo wrestlers or the effects of a crackdown on cocaine.” Pity that the urge for “clean identification” and headline-grabbing results produces a bizarre overconfidence about the study’s extrapolability.

The key mechanism identified here is a substitution of movie-watching for more dangerous activities:

“Economics is about choice,” [one study author] 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.”

I’ll be the first to agree that the study helps demonstrate that, say, those with a propensity for violence are less likely to go out and be violent after watching such a film. But what about the next night, or the night after that? These aggregative, atomized studies do nothing to explore the long-term psychological impact of viewing violence. As Craig A. Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, notes,

There are hundreds of studies done by numerous research groups around the world that show that media violence exposure increases aggressive behavior. People learn from every experience in life, and that learning occurs at a very basic level of brain function.

I’d trust individualized psychological research far more than I would follow brute aggregation here. Admittedly, I’m no expert, and I can envision a plausible theory whereby viewing violence substitutes for, rather than encourages, doing violence (though I would guess the “spillover” effect of viewing is far stronger than the “compensation” effect, to use Jon Elster’s terms). I can only congratulate the recent study authors on the limited finding that people are less likely to brutalize others on the very night they watch violent films–not on giving us much insight at all on the overall cultural impact of violent films.

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