NBC Made Me Do It

Part 8 of the series:

When Faith Doesn’t Work

by Don Enevoldsen

The FBI recently released a report that violent crime in the United States dropped nearly 6% in 2010. That is the fourth consecutive year, and overall, follows a trend for as long as violent crime statistics have been compiled. From time to time, the rates increase, but for as long as I’ve been paying attention, every year or so a handful of articles appears reporting a downward movement. From 2001 through 2009, the average decline has been 3%. See the reports here.

That’s good news, right? You would think people would be excited. But no one really talks about it much except for a handful of experts who can’t explain it. For example, a New York Times article in May 2011 states: “The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years, a development that was considered puzzling partly because it ran counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession.” Later in the same article, Frank E. Zimring, a law professor from the University of California, Berkely, is quoted as saying, “The only thing that is reassuring being in a room full of crime experts now is that they are as puzzled as I am.”

Apparently the statistics themselves are not reassuring, only the fact that experts don’t understand them. Some just scratch their heads. Others deny the accuracy of the statistics. They can’t possibly be right. Just watch the news, or look around you, and you can tell that violence is increasing. There must be things not reported.

Those statistics, though, have pretty consistently followed this trend for decades. The longevity makes it increasingly difficult to explain. So the experts remain puzzled and the emotional, gut reaction continues to bewail a rise in crime not supported by the information. One site I checked had a graph showing the rise in violent crime with a line that steadily maintained about a 45 degree climb, surrounded by a fear-invoking article about the degeneration of American life. The source for the chart was cited as the FBI website. I went to the indicated URL and not only couldn’t find the chart, I couldn’t find anything that agreed with the article. Everything there said exactly the opposite of the chart. Maybe they turned the chart 90 degrees counter clockwise by accident. But more likely, the emotional belief that things are always getting worse was so strong and so ingrained that the information didn’t matter.

There are numerous possible and plausible explanations for this decrease in violence, but that is not the subject of this article. Even if I did know the reason myself, which I really don’t, it would take us completely off our subject. I am interested, however, in the incongruity between the statistics and what I hear preached. It seems to indicate a core belief about our society that is inconsistent with the truth.

For example, the current mantra regarding Hollywood is that violence in film and television is corrupting America, increasing violence in our society, and destroying the future of our children and our nation. I won’t belabor you with quotes. Just Google the subject and you’ll find plenty. It makes a great sermon. I can get a crowd pretty stirred up with the declaration of what is so obvious to everyone. Except that what everyone assumes to be so obvious doesn’t fit the facts. Violent crime keeps dropping. Which makes such a sermon a little disingenuous.

It reminds me of a study I read about twenty years ago. (I no longer have the citation for it, so you’ll have to trust me that I did actually read it.) For a period of time, all the evening news programs were monitored, and every news story was rated as positive, negative or neutral. We all know that most of the news is negative. We see it every day. Ask anyone. It’s common knowledge. But the study showed that in reality, only a small fraction of the stories were negative. The overwhelming majority were positive or neutral. We just don’t remember them as well.

I realize that what I’m saying will stir up some resistance. I’ve been in this argument before. It is an emotional issue. Those who argue with me keep talking about all the thousands of studies done that prove their point. The studies all show an incontrovertible link between media and violence. Read the reactions posted to this information. I suspect there will be a few cited. And I’m sure they say there is definitely a link. Except that violent crime keeps dropping. And like the puzzled experts, there is no explanation offered other than, “The facts must be wrong.”

I’ve read a lot of the studies. So far I haven’t seen one that hasn’t used obviously flawed methodology. I haven’t read all of the thousands that are supposedly out there, but of the ones I have read, I find it interesting that the summaries nearly always say that the study shows a link between media and violence, but the information in the actual study doesn’t. It’s as though they wrote the conclusions before they accumulated the material. Perhaps they turned their charts 90% before writing the summary.

It’s possible there is something more substantive in the studies I haven’t read, but there is evidence that paints a different picture, demonstrating at the very least that the conclusions aren’t very certain and should be questioned. For example, note a study done in 1994 in Britain by Hagell & Newburn. (If you’re really interested in this sort of thing, a good book on the subject is Moving Experiences by David Gauntlett. The study I’m about to describe is detailed on pages 8-10. For a short summary of Gauntlett’s concepts, see “Ten Things Wrong with the Media ‘Effects’ Model”.

The research involved 78 juvenile offenders between 12 and 18 years old who had been arrested at least three times in one year, and who had committed or been accused of at least ten offenses. The study compared the crimes for which they were incarcerated with their television viewing habits. To provide a contrast, they also studied 538 school students in the same age range.

Both groups tended to watch the same kind of programs. None of them watched what are considered violent programming, but rather uniformly stuck with “family” shows. Many of the offenders reported watching no television at all. There was a drastic difference in access to television between the two groups. The offenders consistently had fewer televisions in their homes, with far fewer reporting that they had televisions in their own rooms. During the interviews, the offenders demonstrated significantly less knowledge of television shows. Most could not even name a television character when asked which one they would most like to be. The offenders had far less television influence than the regular students. Those with the most television connection were not the ones committing the crimes.

Another example of this sort of evidence contradictory to the general public perception is a study done between 1971 and 1975 by Stanford. It was called the Three Community Study (TCS). (related in Moving Experiences, pages 86-87) It involved a massive campaign to reduce heart disease by educating the public on behavioral changes that would lead to things like healthier nutrition and less smoking.

One community was used as a control group. One received an extensive media campaign on television, radio and in newspapers. The third received the same media program supplemented with face-to-face skills training, support and incentives.

Both of the campaign cities showed improvement in the area of knowledge on the subject, but only in the community with the personal contacts for training and support was there a significant change in actual behavior. We could summarize the findings by saying that media increases knowledge, but personal contact produces change in behavior.

Several other studies indicated the same conclusions, including a more intensive study by Stanford along the same lines as the Three Community Study and a media campaign conducted in Finland. All of them demonstrated that media does not produce behavior change.

Not even the threat of imminent harm and the fear associated with it produces lasting change. In the 1960s, psychologist Howard Levanthal conducted an experiment with seniors at Yale University (related in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, pages 96-98). He wanted to see if he could persuade students to get a tetanus shot.

To accomplish this, he passed out two versions of a seven-page booklet. One described the horrors of tetanus in detail, with graphic color photographs of various people suffering from the effects of the malady. The second booklet used toned down language and omitted the pictures. They represented a “high-fear” and a “low-fear” message.

The students were later given a questionnaire. Those in the “high-fear” group proved to be much more convinced of the dangers of tetanus, but surprisingly, that concern did not translate into them actually getting the shots. Only 3% of students in both groups did so.

Levanthal redid the experiment, adding to both versions of the booklet a map of the campus with the university health building circled and the times listed that shots were available. This time, 28% of the recipients went in for shots, though the level of fear produced by the brochure seemed irrelevant. Both groups responded at the same rate.

The conclusion is that the personal involvement, even in so small a thing as circling the location on a map, is what made the difference. The media (the brochure) educated, but the personal involvement produced behavior.

Of course, studies like this completely contradict some of the most common advice we give people struggling with core belief problems, that is, advice to change external environments and influences.

“We can get rid of violence if we only stop Hollywood from corrupting our children and force them to produce nothing but G-rated programming.”

“We can get rid of immorality if we eliminate all nudity and sexuality from the air waves and the movie theaters.”

Except that violent crime is steadily declining.

“All right, then, but never mind violence. It’s obvious,” many of you will say, “that promiscuity is out of control. Our founding fathers would be mortified.”

Immorality is out of control, but any student of history will know that it’s no more popular now than it has ever been. Did you know that in early Massachusetts, home of the Pilgrims and the utopian Christian community, birth records show that in the 1740s, 19% of firstborn children were conceived out of wedlock. In the 1750s, that number grew to 26%, and by 1774, just two years before the American Revolution, 41% of firstborn children were conceived before the couple was married. (Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer, page 73.) That means that when Thomas Jefferson wrote about the laws of nature and of nature’s God, and declared that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, two out of every five unmarried couples in Massachusetts were having sex outside of marriage. That was in the most Christian colony of the new Christian nation. It was much worse in the western territories, where Christian morality was not as strict. For those who don’t know much history, that was several years before Hugh Hefner was born.

Preachers of the time still tried to find something to blame for this dramatic increase other than innate, core beliefs. Many pointed to the proliferation of theaters. Some just blamed the French. Most found something to point their fingers at. Preaching hasn’t changed all that much.

People find it easy, convenient and desirable to blame something else for their problems. If television is at fault, then I’m not to blame, and I don’t really have to change. I can stop watching television, especially French television, and feel very spiritual. I’ll still have the same problem, but at least I’ll look good. As long as the problem is something external, then I can ignore the painful and laborious process of digging into my core beliefs and fixing them. It’s always somebody else’s fault, not mine.

Of course, this is what we have been learning in this study of core beliefs. External controls do not change behavior. Until the core belief changes, behavior will continue as it always has. If anything, it will get worse.

Jesus addressed it in his remarks to the Pharisees in Matthew 15:8-9. He declared that they honored him with their lips, that is, they said all the right things, but their hearts, that is, their core beliefs, were far from him. When his disciples questioned him about the statement, he explained:

“Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’” (Matthew 15:10-11)

In Mark, he is even more detailed:

“For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’” (Mark 7:21-23)

This is exactly the opposite of what is taught in most churches. There are books and sermons galore about the weighty responsibility of guarding the “eye gate.” By that they mean that you should be very careful to avoid seeing anything that could possibly trigger sexual desire or lust. All those temptations out there will pull you under. You are certain to fall if you look.

I’m not advocating pornography, and you should be careful what you focus your attention on. As Psalm 101:3 says, “I will set before my eyes no vile thing.” When you are running in terror from the magazine racks, however, stop blaming the publishers. If there were no desire in you, there would be no temptation. James said it this way:

“When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” (James 1:13-14)

If there is nothing in you that connects with a temptation, then that temptation has no power over you. I hate pumpkin pie. You can wave one in front of me all day. You can hire the top marketing firm in the nation to make it attractive. I will still not be tempted. Nothing in my tastes or desires will ever connect to pumpkin pie. Chocolate, on the other hand… That’s a core belief of a completely different flavor.

You are not corrupted by what goes into your eye gate. You are corrupted by what lurks behind your eye gate. You do not have a desire for something because you look at it. You look at it because you have a desire for it. That desire indicates there is something in your core beliefs that needs attention. So stop fooling yourself and pay attention. Ted Turner is not the problem.

Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

NBC Made Me Do It
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