Profitable Nonviolence

How the surprising effects of violent movies can help us to make smarter money decisions.

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Warner Brothers / courtesy Everett Collection

Leave the shooting to Robert DeNiro from Heat.

With the summer movie season upon us, we thought it timely to comment on an enduring question, one that — like many of our Mind Over Money posts — might not seem to have a direct connection to money decisions but in actuality very much does. (We’re sneaky that way!) In any event, here’s the question we want to address: Does exposure to film violence make viewers more violent themselves?

There are all sorts of reasons — imitation and displaced arousal chief among them — to suspect that it might, and there are numerous studies using laboratory methods that support the idea. But what happens beyond the lab, when a particularly violent film (The Passion of the Christ, say, or one of the Saw movies) reaches blockbuster status? Is there a spike in violent crime on its opening weekend? Economists Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna looked at the data and came to a startling conclusion: Violent crime goes down when popular, very violent commercial films are released. The authors estimate that the effect boils down to roughly 1,000 fewer assaults per weekend, or about 52,000 fewer per year if a violent film were released every week. Given the public’s appetite for violent films, that’s not so crazy. Their estimate is that this adds up to nearly $700 million less in victimization (i.e., medical and quality-of-life) costs.

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What’s going on? Part of it is simple: incapacity. When violent people are in theaters, they aren’t out making trouble. And violent people really like violent films, which explains the drop in crime during the hours of 6 p.m. to midnight. That’s when movies are showing. But Dahl and DellaVigna observe an even larger drop later on, from midnight to 6 p.m. They present evidence to support the idea that film attendance, largely by keeping people from drinking alcohol for two hours or so, is just enough to send many folks who are inclined to violence down a calmer path. With no film to see, those prone to violence begin the evening by drinking, which fuels or enables their criminal tendencies and results in assaults and other mayhem. But when the evening starts instead with a “dry” couple of hours, the result is often more peaceful pursuits even after the film is over.

We bring all this up to foreshadow the fact that we’ll probably talk a lot in future posts about how surprisingly modest changes in policy or in a person’s immediate environment can “cascade” like this and add up to rather dramatic results downstream. This insight can make everything from dieting to saving to green-living easier, because rather than trying to motivate people to act in a specific way, we recognize that the issue is sometimes not one of motivation — overweight people really do want to drop pounds — but rather a phenomenon referred to as “channel factors.” We touch on the subject in our book, but Cass Sunstein and Dick Thaler also do a bang-up job in theirs (Nudge). The idea, at its core, is that individuals and groups are often kept from reaching goals not because they don’t really want to achieve them but rather because seemingly small or otherwise insignificant obstacles get in the way. Remove those obstacles and — voila! — a desired result is often easily attained. The practical implications are legion: Dieters bedeviled by late-night snacking should stop beating themselves up about a lack of willpower and instead simply refrain buying unhealthy snacks. (If there aren’t chips in the house, you’re a heck of a lot less likely to eat chips.)

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Likewise, if you’re having trouble staying out of debt or otherwise cutting spending, the wise choice may simply be to throw away credit cards or, at the very least, leave them at home when you go shopping. (Or even give them to a friend who’s with you and authorized to ask “Are you sure?” before handing them over. You’d be shocked at the power of such delaying tactics.) And if you want to save more, set up some type of automatic savings plan, payroll savings plan or other system that steers a small portion of your salary or checking account to a stash that’s tougher to access, either because it’s at a different bank or brokerage than your primary financial institution and/or because you actually throw away your ATM card. It’s astounding how little willpower you need to keep from spending money you can’t get your hands on.