In whole genres of movies and TV series, criminals and criminal organizations have a central role, either in the role of villains or anti-heroes. And I think it is safe to assume that, given the broad dissemination of these media, real-life criminals do watch them as well, at least casually.
My question then is: are there any studies evaluating the effect of media about or featuring criminals on real-life criminals? Does watching these media change the inclinations of criminals, maybe towards more stereotyped behaviors?
Violence in the Media: What Effects on Behavior?
Speculation as to the causes of the recent mass shooting at a Batman movie screening in Colorado has reignited debates in the psychiatric community about media violence and its effects on human behavior.
“Violence in the media has been increasing and reaching proportions that are dangerous,” said Emanuel Tanay, MD, a retired Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Wayne State University and a forensic psychiatrist for more than 50 years.
“You turn on the television, and violence is there. You go to a movie, and violence is there,” Tanay told Psychiatric Times. “Reality is distorted. If you live in a fictional world, then the fictional world becomes your reality.”
The average American watches nearly 5 hours of video each day, 98% of which is watched on a traditional television set, according to Nielsen Company. Nearly two-thirds of TV programs contain some physical violence. Most self-involving video games contain some violent content, even those for children. 1
New Evidence Suggests Media Violence Effects May Be Minimal
Tanay noted, “Anything that promotes something can be called propaganda.” What we call entertainment is really propaganda for violence. If you manufacture guns, you don’t need to advertise, because it is done by our entertainment industry.”
In reality, the number of violent crimes has been falling, but the public’s perception is that violence has increased. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, the overall violent victimization rate (eg, rape and assaults) decreased by 40% from 2001 to 2010. Similarly, the murder rate in the US has dropped by almost half, from 9.8 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5.0 in 2009.
Yet the propaganda, Tanay said, makes people feel that crime is everywhere and that guns are needed for protection.
Asked about the hundreds of murderers he has examined and possible links to media violence, Tanay said, “Most homicides are committed by people who know each other, and who have some momentary conflict and have a weapon handy. Usually only hit men, who are very rare, kill strangers.”
Tanay did acknowledge, however, that some mentally ill individuals are vulnerable to dramatized violence. “They are naturally more vulnerable, because they are in the community, they are sick, and they may misinterpret something.”
The 2 teenage boys who murdered 12 schoolmates and a teacher and injured 21 others at Columbine High School in Colorado before killing themselves, he said, lived in a pathological environment. “Their lives centered around violent video games.”
After the 1999 Columbine tragedy, the FBI and its team of psychiatrists and psychologists concluded that both perpetrators were mentally ill-Eric Harris was a psychopath and Dylan Klebold was depressive and suicidal. Other analysts have argued that a possible causal factor may relate to the young killers’ obsessions with violent imagery in video games and movies that led them to depersonalize their victims.
While the vast majority of individuals afflicted with a psychotic disorder do not commit violence, Tanay said, “some mass killings have been perpetrated by people who are psychotic.”
He cited the example of Seung-Hui Cho, a student who in 2007 shot to death 32 students and faculty of Virginia Tech, wounded 17 more, and then killed himself. “Cho was psychotic. Twenty years ago he would have been committed to a state hospital. . . . Now, we don’t take care of psychotic patients until they do something violent,” Tanay said.
Writing about the Colorado tragedy in a July 20 Time magazine essay, Christopher Ferguson, PhD, Interim Chair and Associate Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology and Communication at Texas A&M International University, argued there is currently no scientific proof that the mass homicides can be explained, even in part, by violent entertainment.
So what does research show?
A 2002 report by the US Secret Service and the US Department of Education, which examined 37 incidents of targeted school shootings and school attacks from 1974 to 2000 in this country, found that “over half of the attackers demonstrated some interest in violence through movies, video games, books, and other media.” 2
In a 2009 Policy Statement on Media Violence, the American Academy of Pediatrics said, “Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.” 3
This year, the Media Violence Commission of the International Society for Research on Aggression (ISRA) in its report on media violence said, “Over the past 50 years, a large number of studies conducted around the world have shown that watching violent television, watching violent films, or playing violent video games increases the likelihood for aggressive behavior.” 4
According to the commission, more than 15 meta-analyses have been published examining the links between media violence and aggression. Anderson and colleagues, 5 for instance, published a comprehensive meta-analysis of violent video game effects and concluded that the “evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect and for decreased empathy and prosocial behavior.”
In a Psychiatric Times interview, psychologist Craig Anderson, PhD, Director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, said the evidence for the media violence–aggression link is very strong from every major type of study design: randomized experiments, cross-sectional correlation studies, and longitudinal studies.
In 2007, Anderson’s group reported on a longitudinal study of violent video games. The study queried children and their peers as well as teachers on aggressive behaviors and violent media consumption twice during a school year. The researchers found that boys and girls who played a lot of violent video games changed over the school year, becoming more aggressive. 6
“There now are numerous longitudinal studies by several different research groups around the world, and they all find significant violent video game exposure effects,” Anderson said.
In contrast, a longitudinal study published this year by Ferguson and colleagues, 7 which followed 165 boys and girls (aged 10 to 14 years) over 3 years, found no long-term link between violent video games and youth aggression or dating violence.
Studies from Japan, Singapore, Germany, Portugal, and the US show that “the association between media violence and aggression is similar across cultures,” according to Anderson.
“Most recently,” he added, “we found that within a high-risk population [incarcerated juvenile offenders], violent video games are associated with violent antisocial behavior, even after controlling for the robust influences of multiple correlates of juvenile delinquency and youth violence, most notably psychopathy.” 8
There is growing evidence, Anderson said, that high exposure to fast-paced violent games can lead to changes in brain function when processing violent images, including dampening of emotional responses to violence and decreases in certain types of executive control. But there also is some evidence that the same type of fast-paced violent games can improve some types of spatial-visual skills, basically, ability to extract visual information from a computer screen.
One of many factors
Despite the links between media violence and aggression, Anderson stressed, “media violence is only one of many risk factors for later aggressive and violent behavior. Furthermore, extremely violent behavior never occurs when there is only one risk factor present. Thus, a healthy, well-adjusted person with few risk factors is not going to become a school-shooter just because they start playing a lot of violent video games or watching a lot of violent movies.”
One of Anderson’s colleagues at Iowa State University, Douglas Gentile, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology, along with Brad Bushman, PhD, Professor of Communication and Psychology at Ohio State University and Professor of Communication Science at the VU University in Amsterdam, recently published a study that identifies media exposure as 1 of the 6 risk factors for predicting later aggression in 430 children (aged 7 to 11, grades 3 to 5) from Minnesota schools. 9 Besides media violence, the remaining risk factors are bias toward hostility, low parental involvement, participant sex, physical victimization, and prior physical fights.
Knowing students’ risk for aggression can help school officials determine which students might be more likely to get in fights or possibly bully other students, according to Gentile, who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University. He said he can get “over 80% accuracy” in predicting which child is at high risk for bullying behavior by knowing 3 things-“are they a boy, have they gotten in a fight within the past year, and do they consume a lot of media violence.”
In discussing their study findings, Gentile and Bushman wrote: “The best single predictor of future aggression in the sample of elementary schoolchildren was past aggression, followed by violent media exposure, followed by having been a victim of aggression.”
They added that their risk-factor approach can “cool down” the heated debate on the effects of media violence, since “exposure to violent media is not the only risk factor for aggression or even the most important risk factor, but it is one important risk factor.”
“We are interested in using this new approach to measuring the multiple risk factors for aggression in additional samples, and also increasing the number of risk factors we examine (there are over 100 known risk factors for aggression),” Gentile told Psychiatric Times. He and colleagues have several other studies under way in several countries.
“I am particularly hopeful that this approach will help the public and professionals realize that media violence is not different from other risk factors for aggression. It’s not the largest, nor the smallest,” he said. “If there is any important difference at all, it is simply that media violence is easier for parents to control than other risk factors, such as being bullied, having psychiatric illnesses, or living in poverty.”
1. Saleem M, Anderson CA. The good, the bad, and the ugly of electronic media. In: Dvoskin J, Skeem JL, Novaco RW, Douglas KS, eds. Applying Social Science to Reduce Violent Offending. New York: Oxford University Press 2012:83-101.
2. Vossekuil B, Fein RA, Reddy M, et al. The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington, DC: US Secret Service, US Dept of Education May 2002.
3. Council on Communications and Media. From the American Academy of Pediatrics: Policy statement-Media violence. Pediatrics. 2009124:1495-1503.
4. Media Violence Commission, International Society for Research on Aggression (ISRA). Report of the media violence commission. Aggress Behav. 201238:335-341.
5. Anderson CA, Shibuya A, Ihori N, et al. Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychol Bull. 2010136:151-173.
6. Anderson CA, Gentile DA, Buckley KE. Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy. New York: Oxford University Press 2007.
7. Ferguson CJ, San Miguel C, Garza A, Jerabeck JM. A longitudinal test of video game violence influences on dating and aggression: a 3-year longitudinal study of adolescents. J Psychiatr Res.201246:141-146.
8. DeLisi M, Vaugh MG, Gentile DA, et al. Violent video games, delinquency, and youth violence: new evidence. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. In press.
9. Gentile DA, Bushman BJ. Reassessing media violence effects using a risk and resilience approach to understanding aggression. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. 20121:138-151.
How Do Movies and TV Influence Behavior?
In early 1972 the Surgeon General’s Office of the United States National Institutes of Health announced that for the first time scientific evidence had been assembled from a number of behavioral studies that showed a causal link between the exposure of children to televised violence and their subsequent aggressive behavior. This meant that violence on television or in movies could stimulate or influence some children to participate in aggressive or violent behavior.
At about the same time my own research at the University of Utah showed that children who had been heavily exposed to violence on TV could also become somewhat desensitized to it compared with children who had seen little or no TV. This would suggest a possible emotional blunting of the individual to violence witnessed or even a potential “turning off” of conscience and concern in the presence of violence.
Many social psychologists have been concerned by the recently identified phenomenon known as “bystander apathy,” where people seem willing to stand by and watch while others are injured or killed, and the observers will do nothing to help the victim. This suggests an unfeeling or indifferent response by citizens in the presence of suffering on the part of others.
One possible explanation for this apathy, especially in the larger urban areas, is that many individuals have become desensitized to violence witnessed primarily in the media. And while in the United States available data show an enormous amount of violence on TV and in movies, this is an issue and problem common to many of the culturally advanced nations of the world where a high percentage of the populace have TV sets.
Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham has commented, “Through TV and moving pictures a child may see more violence in thirty minutes than the average adult experiences in a lifetime. What children see on the screen is violence as an almost casual commonplace of daily living. Violence becomes the fundamental principle of society, the natural law of humanity. Killing is as common as taking a walk, a gun more natural than an umbrella. Children learn to take pride in force and violence and to feel ashamed of ordinary sympathy. They are encouraged to forget that people have feelings.”
A second major issue of concern, in addition to the desensitization of sympathetic feelings, is derived from the work of a Stanford University psychologist, Albert Bandura, in the area of modeling and imitative learning.
In recent years he and a number of associates have amassed a great deal of evidence that has repeatedly and powerfully shown how live models or those on TV and on the theater screen can teach new behavior patterns and influence or even change opinions, attitudes, and values.
Many of the U.S. Surgeon General’s studies that led to the conclusion that violence on the screen could cause aggressive behavior in some children stemmed from work in the area of imitative learning or modeling. This evidence suggests that TV and motion pictures are powerful teaching tools, for good or evil.
Advertisers spend two and a half billion dollars a year on TV advertising in the U.S. on the assumption that commercials can influence people to buy their products rather than the products of their competitors.
Politicians often engage in saturation blitzes on TV, spending large sums of money in an effort to sway voter opinion and behavior in their direction. This too is done on the assumption, and with some supporting scientific evidence, that the media are powerful determiners of behavior, whether it be in selling a bar of soap or attracting votes to a particular candidate.
There appears to be little doubt that television and motion pictures have significant power to inform, educate, persuade, and sometimes even change behavior.
The general notion behind modeling, or imitative learning, is that if you want someone to adopt a new behavior, you show him a live or televised model of someone exhibiting this behavior under glamorous and attractive conditions. For example, a young man may be afraid of snakes. You wish to “cure” him of this malady. You show him a cute little girl playing with a harmless snake, first at a distance, then close up. She models for him the handling of a snake, demonstrating how harmless it can be. After a few exposures to this, he touches the snake and soon overcomes his fear and aversion to it. One can effectively teach golf, the operation of a complex machine, table manners, and other skills primarily by the modeling or imitative learning technique.
In a junior high school recently two boys were found to be drunk in the classroom. An investigation showed that one of the boys had recently watched a thirty-minute TV documentary on the making of whiskey and distilled spirits. On the basis of this single exposure, he built his own still and made his own private alcoholic stock, which he brought to school and shared with his companion.
The educational potential of TV and motion pictures is enormous. Studies in the U.S. show that by the age of three, children have become purposeful TV viewers, meaning that they have established patterns of favorite programs and viewing times. Various surveys have shown that most children watch TV from fourteen to forty-nine hours a week, depending on age and socio-economic level.
This means that most children spend more time in front of a TV set than in front of a teacher during a year’s time. In just the preschool years alone, some U.S. studies show that the average child spends more time watching TV than he spends in the classroom during four years of college. One study notes that the average child in the U.S. has witnessed over 10,000 murders on TV by the age of fourteen.
The notion that parents should or can control the TV-viewing habits of their children turns out to be virtually a myth in most households. The Surgeon General’s studies have found that in the overwhelming majority of households, the children, not adults, decide what programs they choose to see. Parents, in fact, rarely exercise control over the television habit of their children.
Bandura, the Stanford psychologist, has concluded that imitative learning plays a highly influential role in accelerating social changes, in inducing long-lasting attitude changes, and in strengthening or extinguishing emotional responsiveness to various stimuli. This conclusion suggests that people’s basic values, as well as behavior and possibly their consciences, can be manipulated and engineered.
The role of TV and movies in inciting violence, in teaching values, and in modeling a variety of life-styles, some of which may be antisocial and contributory to social breakdown, certainly bears investigation.
Considerable evidence suggests an increasing breakdown of the family as a social unit. The divorce rate in America, for example, is approaching nearly a million a year. In the past eight years the rate has nearly doubled.
With the breakdown in family life, some experts predict that in the near future parents will be forbidden by law to educate and train their children and that this will be turned over to specialized and bureaucratic organizations guided by the latest research and expertise.
A brief survey of the revolution that the production of commercial motion pictures has gone through during the last decade might be helpful.
A new freedom now exists worldwide and especially in the U.S. in which movie censorship is nearly nonexistent. Almost anything imaginable can be filmed and shown on the screen. Violence, extremes in sadism, explicit sex, revolutionary political philosophies, great varieties of antisocial behaviors, and sympathetic advocacy of the use of drugs are just a few of the taboos that have been repeatedly broken.
Most commercial motion pictures that get national distribution are later purchased for TV screening, where, with occasional editing, they have a cultural life of ten to twenty years, being first presented in prime time and then eventually in off-season late shows.
If one can assume, as research now suggests, that the theater and TV screen are to some extent teachers of values and social behavior in our society, it might be important to assess what kinds of values and behavior are being taught or modeled by the media. It is entirely possible that the fantasy creations of today’s movie theater may, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, become tomorrow’s social norms.
The motion picture theater may, in fact, be a more powerful and persuasive teacher of values and ethics on Saturday night than the Sunday School classroom is on Sunday morning.
What effect does it have on one’s seventeen-year-old daughter to visit weekly a motion picture theater with her boyfriend and see adultery or premarital affairs on wide screen, in color, to the accompaniment of soft music? Or what effect does it have on her younger brother to watch twenty-two hours of TV a week and be shown violence depicted as exciting, crooks presented as heroes, adultery presented as something amusing, and where there is a frequent blurring and confusion about moral and ethical issues and behavior?
One might argue that if his daughter and son are loved and well brought up and emotionally well balanced, they will not be affected by what they see modeled on the screen, regardless of how perverse or antisocial. However, we flatter ourselves, as Dr. Wertham has argued, “if we think that our social conditions, our family life, our education and our entertainment are so far above reproach that only the emotionally sick children can get into trouble. We like to assume that most children are ‘immune’ to such influences … but my work convinces me that no immunity exists. Harm is harm. A noxious agent is still a noxious agent. There may be defenses against a snowball, but there are none against an avalanche.”
In an attempt to analyze in depth the specific content, value, and themes modeled in our present-day cinema, the writer, with the help of four assistants, conducted a survey of every motion picture playing in a moderate-size American city during one week in the winter of 1971–72.
We attended downtown central city cinemas, suburban movie houses, and drive-in theaters. We would regard this as a fairly representative sample of movie fare found in most regions of the Western world.
We analyzed thirty-seven films, ranging from mild family comedies to “X”-rated films and suspense movies. Sixteen percent were “X”-rated, 24 percent “R”-rated, 46 percent “PG”-rated, and only 14 percent “G”-rated.
We found that the average film contained thirty-eight scenes or incidents of violence and sex, including nudity, illicit sex, physical aggression without weapons between humans, slaughter, and massacre.
The films appeared to fit into four general categories: (1) sex films that had a minimum of plot and a great deal of nudity and sexual interactions (2) adventure movies that displayed a great deal of explicit violence and fast action, with some sex thrown in for titillation purposes (3) contemporary films that focused on contemporary youth themes of antiwar, antiestablishment, generation gap, minority suppression, and personal alienation genre and (4) miscellaneous films that were in the “comedy and light entertainment” category, with the primary focus being on entertainment in the pure sense.
Sixty-two percent of the films presented an essentially fatalistic viewpoint of life and human destiny, in which man was caught by forces that he could not really control or cope with and in which he had to endure his fate without much hope of resolving his difficulties or conflicts. This approached in some ways the existential view of man, though here it also suggested an additional impotency and ineffectualness. Twenty-two percent of the heroes and heroines were eventually killed, died, or in some way were destroyed.
Fifty-seven percent of the films presented dishonesty in a heroic light or as justifiable conduct in light of the hero’s circumstances (e.g., the policeman engaged in illegal or dishonest behavior in order to capture or kill the villain, but considering how bad the villain is, this is suggested as being “obviously justified”).
Thirty-eight percent of the films presented criminal activity as something that pays off or as being a successful and exciting pastime with no negative consequences. Only 31 percent of the films depicted criminal activity as nonrewarding or having negative consequences.
In 43 percent of the films the heroes were portrayed as law breakers or antisocial characters. Of those movies having heroines, 38 percent were similarly antisocial types.
In 59 percent of the films the heroes killed one or more individuals, while 21 percent of the heroines did similarly. About half of these killings were presented as being justifiable.
In 87 percent of the films the hero (whether antisocial or not) was portrayed appealingly and sympathetically as a person the audience might identify with.
When the heroes’ ultimate goals were analyzed, 49 percent were attempting to do something socially constructive, though sometimes illegally or by using violent means. Another 27 percent of the heroes were pursuing socially destructive goals or ends, such as pushing drugs, while 24 percent of the films presented heroes with neutral goals—that is, merely trying to survive.
In 60 percent of the films premarital and extramarital sexual relations were presented as normal and acceptable. Seventy percent of the heroes or male leads and 72 percent of the heroines were presented as being to some degree sexually promiscuous. Only one film suggested normal sexual relations between a man and a woman legally married to each other. In other words, the model of sex presented in American cinema is almost entirely illicit, with an almost total rejection of the notion that sex might occur between men and women married to each other.
In only 22 percent of the films were any of the principal figures seen engaged in what might be termed healthy and reasonably satisfying marriages. Another 27 percent of the films presented the main characters in pathological marital situations, and the remaining 51 percent of the films showed all of the key characters as unmarried or not essentially involved in marriage. In other words, models of healthy marriage and marital interaction are present in only a fairly small minority of films.
A good share of our modern cinema heroes are antiheroes who, for the most part, are unprincipled, unrestrained, lacking in impulse control, and unconcerned with the rights or sensitivities of others.
In faulting the violence to be found in the American cinema, the most telling argument against it is not its sheer volume, but that too little is taught or modeled of the real nature of violence and how to control it. Rarely is there shown the impact, the aftermath, or the follow-up of all those people so neatly killed or injured, as it might be in real life. We don’t see the grieving family of the father who was killed by the hero, or the man with the damaged spine, now unemployed and crippled for life by the bullet in the lower vertebra, or the adolescent girl who was raped but who in real life is likely to have many years of acute marital problems arising out of her terrifying experience.
Thus we see that the modern movie ethic equates courage with violence and the solution of problems with impulsive aggressive action. If the themes in the current cinema are harbingers of the future, we may indeed have some concerns for future generations.
The Scientific Reason You Love Watching Reruns
“I’ll be there for you” is the catchy cry of the “Friends” them song, and the show lives up to this promise. It’s on your TV again and again ― and you love it every time.
Turns out there’s a reason you can’t get enough of those reruns, even if you’ve seen them a million times (and no, it’s not Chandler’s quick wit). It’s your psyche.
Rewatching shows and movies you’ve already seen are attractive to your brain because they’re the perfect, comforting nostalgia trigger. It’s the same reason you re-read the “Harry Potter” series every so often, listen to Adele’s “Hello” a thousand times or watch the same series on Hulu or Netflix rather than opting for whatever new show your friends are recommending.
“There are a great deal of things that we do not at all feel compelled to re-watch or re-read, particularly in a world in which we have access to virtually limitless entertainment and cultural material. The things that we do feel compelled to re-watch or re-read are those that provide us with either comfort or perspective,” psychologist Neel Burton, author of “Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions,” told HuffPost.
“The things that we do feel compelled to re-watch or re-read are those that provide us with either comfort or perspective.”
Here’s how it works: Nostalgia permeates your inner life by being a source of consolation you can tap into anytime you feel lonely or wistful for a period of time that’s already passed. It feels good to reminisce, and even better to escape the current reality. The best part? The effort to do so is moderately low and the reward (as recognized by the brain) is high, Burton says.
“Our everyday is humdrum, often even absurd,” Burton explained. “Nostalgia can lend us much-needed context, perspective and direction, reminding and reassuring us that our life is not as banal as it may seem. It also tells us that there have been ― and will once again be ― meaningful moments and experiences.”
Researchers are finding that the act of repetition also plays a role. Human beings love predictability. As Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, re-watching or re-listening to something makes you feel good because it’s incredibly easy to process:
The scientific term for this is “mere exposure effect,” meaning that we like something more merely because we’ve been previously exposed to it. So there is evidence not only that we replay songs that we like, but also that ― up to a certain point! ― we like songs the more often that we play them.
Add the power of repetition to nostalgia and you have a combination that’s irresistible to your brain.
That said, what makes something worth reminiscing varies in different cultures. “Our form of nostalgia is perhaps not a timeless and universal human emotion like, say, fear or anger,” Burton explained.
The concept of “nostalgia” is a more abstract idealization of time periods or people in other parts of the world, not something that’s necessarily tied to a specific “trigger.” The ancient Romans, for example, called the phenomenon “memoria praeteritorum bonorum” which psychologists now coin as “rosy retrospection,” Burton said. It means that the past is always remembered in an idealized way.
And it makes sense that there are different cultural definitions of nostalgia ― even now. What some consider a comforting staple of their formative or favored years in America (i.e., “Friends”) isn’t going to be the same for someone in, say, Italy, who may have grown up with a different show or without a lot of TV altogether. The outcome may be the same, but the trigger or the process to get us to that wistful place may be entirely different.
Ultimately, Burton says there’s nothing wrong with your affinity for reruns, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with reminiscence as long as you’re not idealizing or completely living in the past. In fact, there are even some scientific benefits: Research shows nostalgia can make people feel more optimistic about the future and can counteract loneliness and anxiety.
“Each time they watch an episode, it’s like meeting up with their friends, catching up with the gossip and having new adventures,” he said. “But, of course, there are only so many episodes, and once they run out, well, what else to do but to re-watch them?”
And re-watch them, you will. We’re just going to go ahead give your life the episode title “The One With ‘Friends’ On Repeat.”
The Psychology of Copycat Crime
A recent wave of subway slashings in New York City is an opportunity to examine the criminology and sociology behind copycat crime.
You are standing on the subway platform, waiting for the next 6 train, which is coming in two minutes. You are just behind the yellow line, toward the middle of the platform, when, suddenly, you feel a stinging sensation across your left cheek, like someone just punched you in the face. You put a hand up to your face and feel something warm and wet. When you bring your hand down, you see blood—your blood.
You can’t reach for your phone because your hand is covered in blood. No one around you seems to have noticed that anything happened—everyone is listening to music with headphones or playing games on cell phones. You go into shock. And you realize you don’t even know who attacked you—or why.
Since mid-December 2015, there have been some two dozen slashings in New York City, many of them on or near subway platforms. The media has speculated that these crimes are copycat in nature, meaning that the subsequent slashings were inspired or motivated by the initial crimes in December. However, the New York City Police Department claims there is little evidence to suggest that the crimes are related.
“The issue with any of these splurges in crime is that you have to differentiate between an increase in reporting and an increase in crime,” says Raymond Surette, a criminologist at the University of Central Florida. Just because you read more about a particular type of crime in the newspaper, he says, doesn’t necessarily mean that there have been more incidents of that crime. It might just be that particular type of crime is getting more media coverage than usual. Even though “criminology has traditionally given credence to copycat crime, it has not done so through the lens of the media,” he says.
Other explanations have to be eliminated to determine if a crime is really copycat, Surette adds. This includes whether or not the same person is committing the crimes, which seems to be the case for some of the recent slashings. Criminologically speaking, you can’t copycat yourself. However, “knowing whether or not a crime is copycat probably isn’t super helpful to the police when it comes to solving these crimes,” he says.
Even though Surette believes that these NYC slashings are probably connected on some level, “the only way to really determine if a crime is a copycat crime is to catch the criminal and ask exactly why they did it.” And even then, the interrogator has to rely on the criminals to tell the truth, which they don’t always do.
In the mid-1990s, Columbia Pictures released the film Money Train, featuring a scene where one of the characters attempts to set a subway-token booth attendant on fire. Not long after the film opened, two men actually set a Brooklyn subway-token booth attendant on fire. This might seem like a cut-and-dried example of copycat crime, but it actually isn’t.
“It is still unclear whether or not the men had seen the movie,” says Surette. “Initially they said they hadn’t, but their story seemed to change.” If they hadn’t seen the movie themselves, they still could have heard about it from a review or a friend who saw it, but we have no way of knowing without a doubt if this particular crime was a copycat.
In his 2006 book, Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City, Steve Macek, a professor of communications at North Central College in Illinois, discusses what he calls the “Cinema of Suburban Paranoia.” That is, films that riff on suburban fears of urban environments, such as fear of the subway as a place of criminal activity and terror. He cites Money Train as one of these films—and mentions that the film likely had a influence on the actions of the criminals who actually did set a subway booth attendant on fire.
Whether or not these more recent subway attacks are copycat crimes or simply coincidental, they are still a terrifying phenomenon.
The New York Post is well-known for its sensational headlines.
The notion “that imitation can play a role in the genesis of crime is an old idea going back to the late-19th-century writings of French criminologist Gabriel Tarde,” says David Greenberg, a sociologist at New York University.
One of Tarde’s contemporaries, Gustavo Tosti, wrote about Tarde’s sociological theories in Political Science Quarterly in 1897. Tarde proposed that copycatting be defined by “the influence of one brain upon another brain.” This influence has two stages: “(1) a model and a copy, that is to say, an idea which tends to reproduce itself by suggestion and (2) an act of imitation by which the reproduction is accomplished.” The latter, “an act of imitation,” translates into copycat crime.
However, the term “copycat” was first used to describe patterns of criminal behavior by David Dressler, a former executive director of the New York State Division of Parole and sociologist, in 1961. His article, “The Case of the Copycat Criminal,” ran in the New York Times on December 10 of that year. The article’s subtitle, “When crime comes in waves, simple imitation plays a large part in the phenomenon,” serves as a good summary of Dressler’s overarching argument. When a series of similar crimes occurs in a given period of time, he argues, there is a high likelihood that the criminals are copying one another.
However, some academic experts in criminology take a different approach. “I don’t believe there is a legal category of copycat crimes,” says NYU’s Greenberg. Whether or not a crime is characterized as copycat doesn’t play an important role in how law enforcement solves the crime or in how courts prosecute criminals, he says.
So maybe it makes sense that, even though it has been 55 years since the term was introduced, there still is not a lot of good research on copycat offenders, says Raymond Surette. What we do know, he says, is that crime waves tend to follow fairly predictable patterns and usually run their course within two to three months. Although there is “not enough data from the recent slashings to do a rigorous empirical analysis,” Surette says, “one can predict that the crime wave has almost run its course by this point.”
Jacqueline Helfgott, a professor of criminal justice at Seattle University, says that some research suggests that criminals get their ideas for their crimes from the media, and that there does seem to be an effect of the media on at least a subset of people. “Excessive media attention to a particular type of crime can be a risk factor for criminal behavior,” she says.
There is a subset of the population known as “edge-sitters,” Helfgott says. These are people “sitting on the edge” between normal and criminal behavior. “A lot of things can provoke them,” she adds, “including pop culture, increasing the likelihood that they will engage in criminal behavior.” If a so-called edge-sitter sees reports of a subway slashing on the evening news, they might be inspired to slash someone on the subway.
However, some researchers say media coverage does not matter, says Helfgott. Plenty of people watch the news, but they don’t all go out and commit a crime because they saw that someone else did it on TV.
The recent attacks in New York City seem unrelated, but there aren’t enough details to pass judgment, says Helfgott. The subway presents an environmental opportunity for a number of reasons, she says. Although there are typically plenty of people on the train or the platform to witness a crime, each of these people is also a potential victim or perpetrator, and they are all in a confined space. The criminal blends into the crowd.
But before you have a panic attack about riding the subway, it is important to understand what it means when the NYPD or Transit Authority reports an increase in this kind of crime, and why it doesn’t necessarily indicate an outbreak of copycat crime.
A 15 percent increase in this type of crime in NYC is not a large one, says David Greenberg. When you have a very low base rate, he explains, a big increase percentage-wise can actually mean an extremely small number of cases. An increase of seven slashings to eight slashings from one month to the next, for example, amounts to a 14.2 percent increase. Likewise, a 15 percent increase means that 85 percent of the occurrences are at a routine level. “These percentages can jump around a lot,” Greenberg says, “and it means nothing.”
Even though the increase in crime isn’t that significant, excessive media coverage can make it seem like a much larger spike than it is, says Greenberg. “Stories about violence in our midst attract readers,” he says. More violence in the news gets more clicks and makes more money—whether or not more violent crimes really are happening. When fewer violent crimes are committed overall, other, less-violent crimes tend to get more coverage, making it seem like there are more instances of them.
“The linkages between these [NYC subway crimes] only seem to be made by the journalists writing about them,” says Gray Cavender, a professor of criminal justice at Arizona State University. “These stories don’t seem to have a lot of similarity,” he says. The weapons, the victims, the motives—they are all inconsistent.
“Coming up with a way to analyze copycat crime is hard,” says Cavender, “and a journalistic application of the term ‘copycat’ might not necessarily fulfill scholarly criteria.”
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Do crime dramas make better criminals?
Here's a scenario that could conceivably keep a prosecutor or cop up at night: Aided by what they learn on TV shows like "CSI," "Bones" or " Law & Order," criminals have now figured out better ways to pull off their misdeeds without getting caught. Leaving aside the specific inaccuracies of crime dramas, the kernel of truth the TV shows get absolutely correct is how law enforcement has come to rely more and more on DNA evidence to obtain convictions, particularly when compared to a decade or two ago [source: Novak]. "It wasn't long ago when DNA evidence was introduced in a trial, such as the O.J. Simpson case, that the jury and public had a hard time understanding what it meant and were skeptical about it," says Ken Novak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. "Fast forward almost 20 years, now juries need it."
A number of prosecutors and police officers do believe that crime shows that focus so much on the importance of forensic evidence have also made some criminals keenly aware of the need to erase it [source: Farquhar]. Wayne Farquhar, a police officer with nearly three decades of experience with the San Jose, Calif. Police Department, does believe at least some criminals are learning.
"I see crooks more aware of protecting themselves against leaving DNA, whether it's by using gloves or masks, or the way they wipe things down and clean things," he says. For example, Farquhar remembers an instance when a criminal scrubbed a car down with bleach, assuring that no DNA evidence would be found. Although not a TV show, the movie "The Town," about a group of Boston bank robbers, featured similar techniques that would have given helpful tips to observant criminals. It showed how they avoided detection by using bleach and burning getaway cars to destroy evidence [source: Farquhar]. "You won't get anything out of a torched car," Farquhar says.
Read on to find out why TV might have a bigger impact on juries than criminals.
The "CSI Effect" Impacts Juries, Not Crooks
Not everyone is convinced that TV churns out sophisticated criminals who plan out their crimes and know how to function so they're invisible to their pursuers. Count University of Missouri criminal justice professor Ken Novak among the skeptics. To Novak, most crimes are born either out of passion or opportunity, not planned out meticulously in advance. "It's not clear to me that people are making decisions based on forensics or what they believe the capacity of the police to be," he says. "Most break-ins are pretty rudimentary. The [criminals] aren't cutting glass or using gloves. They see an opportunity and take it."
Where Novak and many others believe shows like "CSI" do have an impact is with juries -- enough people are convinced of this phenomenon that it has been coined the "CSI Effect," and it refers to an expectation amongst jurors that all cases will include forensic evidence [source: Shelton]. "The jury expects all kinds of technology and lab reports and processing to be done," says Joe Dane, who worked as a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, a prosecutor and now as a defense attorney. It was important enough of a factor in cases that, as a prosecutor, Dane would ask potential jurors whether they watched TV crime shows and whether or not they expected to see DNA evidence [source: Dane].
Although plenty of anecdotal evidence exists about the "CSI Effect," at least one study cast doubt on its impact on convictions. Three faculty members from Eastern Michigan University surveyed 1,000 jury members before their participation in a trial, asking them about their TV watching habits and what they expected in terms of scientific evidence in order to convict. They found little to be concerned about. The study determined that even though CSI viewers did actually expect to see more scientific evidence than those who didn't watch the show, it did not have any impact on their likelihood to convict an accused criminal [source: Shelton].
The Show Keeps You From Your Self-Care Routine
With your therapist's approval, watching positive TV shows can be a part of your plan to improve your mental health. But if you find that watching a show is taking time away from other self-care rituals, it might begin to have a negative effect. For example, if you've found that journaling every night and spending quality time with your friends on the weekends are great ways to help with your anxiety, staying home to watch a new episode instead of doing other self-care activities could be a problem. If a show is taking significant time away from your social life, you might want to reconsider what you're watching, Dr. Sherrie Campbell, a licensed psychologist with specialization in self-love, inspirational speaker, and author of But It’s Your Family, tells Bustle.
Breaking Bad: chemistry teacher turned drug dealer
Continuing with the theme of double lives, the story of Walter White also has a humanizing background. The chemistry teacher is one of the most illustrative examples of the complexities of accepting illness and preparing for death.
Instead of drowning in the diagnosis of an illness that he doesn’t have the financial means to face, he radically changes his life. Not just his day-to-day routine, but his job, his role in the family, his communication with his wife, and just about everything else. And he does it all in secret!
The first season in particular is a master class in psychology. Stephen King himself rated it the best TV series in history.
Movie violence doesn't make kids violent, study finds
Parents often worry that violent movies can trigger violence in their kids, but a new study suggests PG-13-rated movies won't turn your kids into criminals.
Researchers found that as PG-13 movies became more violent between 1985 and 2015, overall rates of murder and violence actually fell.
"It doesn't appear that PG-13-rated movies are having any impact on viewers," said lead researcher Christopher Ferguson. He's a professor of psychology at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla.
Kids may re-enact things they see in films during play, Ferguson said, but their playful re-enactments don't turn into real-life violence, like bullying or assaults.
But the report came under fire from Dan Romer, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Adolescent Communication Institute. He said the data studied can't be used to draw conclusions about movies' effects on violence.
"The authors have a very simplistic model of how the mass media work, and they have an agenda that attempts to show that violent media are salutary rather than harmful," Romer said. "What is needed is dispassionate analysis rather than cherry-picking of convenient data."
Previous studies have suggested parents may become desensitized to violence in PG-13 movies, making it more likely they will let children see them—especially when gun violence is portrayed as justified.
But researcher Ferguson said media are simply an easy target for people who want to claim the moral high ground. Blaming media gives people a false sense of control.
"It's nice to say, 'Let's get rid of this thing and then that would make all these problems go away,'" he said. "It's kind of a simplistic answer."
Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital, reviewed the findings. He said the new study attempts to simplify a complex issue.
"While violence has declined, it doesn't warrant the conclusion that we are not affected by violence in our media," Rich said. "As a pediatrician, I am more concerned about the violence that children experience every day, which is not reflected in crime stats."
What people experience most is micro-aggressions, like bullying, Rich said. While he considers movies a reflection of society, he added that the causes of violence and aggression are numerous. "It's a complex issue," he said.
But it's clear that violence in media has a numbing effect, making viewers less bothered by it, he said. "That is, in part, why violent media always needs to up the ante," Rich explained.
Media violence teaches kids that the world is more violent than it really is, and most react by becoming more fearful, not more violent or aggressive, he said.
"Violence is much rarer than fear and anxiety," Rich said. "We find that most kids who carry a weapon into school do it for protection."
For the study, Ferguson and Villanova University psychology professor Patrick Markey reviewed other researchers' data on PG-13 movies, along with U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation data on violent crime and the National Crime Victimization Survey.
But Romer said that data can't be used to draw conclusions about movies' effects on violence.
Despite a sharp drop in youth violence since the mid-1990s, the homicide rate has been far more stable, Romer said.
"And the homicide data do not even focus on youth gun homicides, which is what one would want to look at if one were really interested in the effects of gun violence in popular movies," he added.
Gun violence in young people rose dramatically as it became more common in PG-13 movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Romer noted.
Rich said parents can use media to teach their children. He suggested parents watch these movies with their kids and help them respond to their feelings and fears about what they see.
"Parents can help guide their children to what is acceptable and what is not," Rich said. "Kids are always learning, but that learning can be shaped and modified."
The report was published Jan. 17 in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly.