Halloween season is a time when Hollywood likes to showcase its horror films. This annual ritual prompts another: a debate over whether violent scenes inspire real-life violence. The debate is usually between those who consider such films dangerous – and indeed, survey studies by psychologists suggest copycat violence is possible – and those who hold they're “harmless.”
But what if, when it comes to preventing real-life violence, horror films are actually helpful?
That's what economists Gordon Dahl and Stephano Della Vigna found when they analyzed the impact of different blockbuster movies released in the U.S. over a decade. According to their analysis, for every million people who view a violent film on a given day, violent crime decreases across the nation by 1.2 percent.
Put in other terms, the researchers estimate that, on a weekend when an average number of viewers go see violent movies, the films deter nearly 1,000 assaults.
How is this possible?
According to Dahl and Della Vigna, people who might otherwise commit crimes are drawn into movie theaters when a violent film is released and so aren't available to commit assaults. In addition, the economists found violent film attendance led to particularly large decreases in assaults involving alcohol and drugs and had a larger deterrent effect for potential offenders just above the legal drinking age. This suggests that violent films prevent crime in part by reducing potential criminals' alcohol consumption. Importantly, though studying the long-term effects of violent films on crime wasn't possible in this context, the researchers found “no evidence of medium-run effects up to three weeks after initial exposure” to violent films.
These findings suggest that creating attractive diversions for prospective criminals (like opportunities to watch violent films in theaters) can reduce violence.
A recent small study conducted in Cape Town, South Africa, by the nonprofit behavioral science consultancy ideas42 relied on this very same insight to tremendous effect. In the study, 156 low-income, at-risk youth in Cape Town were randomly assigned to either a control group that went about their lives as usual or an intervention group that interacted with a computer program designed to help them find and plan fun, safe weekend activities. The program presented users with a series of different suggested weekend pastimes – like starting a pickup soccer game – until a suggestion was accepted. Then it helped a user plan where, when and with whom they would enjoy the suggested activity.
Survey data showed that youths randomly assigned to the intervention group were half as likely to participate in unsafe activities over the following weekend and half as likely to experience violence relative to the control group.
A more general lesson from these studies is that an understanding of the psychology of violence – for instance, that it often results from unoccupied time on Friday and Saturday nights – can suggest useful tactics for reducing it. This can add to the arsenal of traditional approaches used for fighting crime like better or more policing and stiffer penalties.
Together, these findings from behavioral science are cause for celebration. They suggest new, highly effective ways to reduce crime and improve the lives of potential victims and criminals alike.