Never Never Land

EDITORIAL NOTEBOOK

January 19, 2008

The initial reports on Gordon Dahl's research suggested he had found a novel way to reduce crime. The 39-year-old economist and his colleague, Stefano Della Vigna, set out to answer the question: Does movie violence increase violent crime?

And their answer was an unexpected no, based on a review of crime data following weekend showings of such violent movies as Hannibal, Scary Movie and Terminator 3. It was provocative even for a pair of California researchers whose work should have Hollywood executives smiling.

Their study, presented at a recent meeting of the American Economic Association, challenges the established laboratory research, which shows that exposure to violence increases aggressive behavior. The paper could have implications for the real world.

Consider the authors' findings:

Relying on box office data, film ratings and crime statistics from 1995 to 2004, the researchers found that violent crime nationwide decreased on weekend days when large groups of people were watching blockbuster movies that were violent and moderately violent. The research found that crime declined further in the hours after the movie let out, but in short, "violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend."

How can that be?

The researchers say young men who may be more prone to violence are confined to one place, the theater. They're preoccupied for a couple of hours, albeit watching a gritty movie. They have little or no access to alcohol and are in an environment that doesn't lend itself to throwing a punch or getting involved in a heated argument.

And here's another startling twist: a nonviolent movie that young men prefer (think Austin Powers films) will have the same effect.

Now consider the possibilities:

Instead of investing in expensive crime-fighting technology, special undercover units and increased foot patrols, crime-ridden cities could tap into Hollywood's mayhem for civic relief. Host a marathon viewing of Lost World: Jurassic Park, Matrix Reloaded and Bad Boys 2 in local theaters. Provide deep discounts for a double feature. Heck, offer free admission. Pass the popcorn.

If only it were that easy.

Upon further discussion, we learn that the researchers defined violence as assaults, aggravated assaults and intimidation, not the homicides and gun violence that stubbornly plague Baltimore and other high-crime cities. The study focuses on weekends when movie attendance is greatest, which leaves filmgoers to their own devices the other five days of the week.

And are gangbangers really spending their weekends at the movies?

But Mr. Dahl suggests the study does have policy implications: Engage young men who are at risk of violence in something they like to do, a midnight basketball league, for example, and the impact on crime will be immediately felt.

Now there's a solution.

- Ann LoLordo

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