How Do Motion Pictures Affect the Conduct of Children?: Methods Employed in "Movies and Conduct"[1] and "Movies, Delinquency and Crime."[2]

Philip M. Hauser

In seeking to throw light on the general problems as to how the conduct of a normal, delinquent, or criminal character is influenced by motion pictures, the personal accounts by individuals of their own experiences were, in the main, relied upon. While it was recognized that more sophisticated techniques of research are available and are of great value for studying many types of problems, the authors felt these methods, although more generally accepted as "scientific" in character, would prove of comparatively little value in furnishing insights on the particular problems with which they were concerned. These studies assume, then, that personal accounts of experience, if secured under satisfactory conditions and interpreted with caution and judgment, are a quite adequate basis for describing and generalizing upon various phases of human conduct.


The utmost care and attention were devoted to gaining full co÷peration from contributors. For this purpose it was, necessary to build up rapport. A very frank statement of the purpose of the investigation was always made so as to avoid the suspicion that the investigator was trying to "get something" on the contributor. Various types of appeals for honest co÷peration were resorted to in keeping with the character of the persons being approached. The anonymity of the documents was stressed and, when possible,[3] schemes devised to ensure perfect privacy to the contributors in describing intimate and confidential experiences.

Motives for co÷peration were furnished where neces-

( 232) -sary or possible and their nature varied with the. groups. Students, for instance, were motivated to write full accounts because their papers were graded and credit was received for them. Incarcerated delinquents or criminals occasionally were more eager to co÷perate because of small favors, such as bringing them library books, furnishing them with cigarettes, etc., that were rendered them.[4]

It should be remembered, however, that in the cases of many persons no further motivation than the opportunity to relate their experience is necessary. The "stranger" relationship,[5] existing between investigator and subject, frequently was an important factor in the securing of full and reliable life histories; and in the institutional situation in which most of the materials for the delinquency and crime study were secured, the writing of a motion-picture autobiography was frequently welcomed by the inmates as a dual opportunity to give vent to pent-up feelings and confide in some one, and to break the monotony of institutional life.


The specific motion-picture life history, the personal interview, accounts of conversations on motion pictures, and questionnaires are the various types of personal accounts employed in these studies.

The specific motion-picture life history differs from a general autobiographical account in that the narration by the individual of his experiences is limited to a description of his behavior centering around the motion pictures. From

( 233) preliminary exploratory documents which were received recurrent experiences were itemized and used as a basis for the construction of guidance sheets submitted to later contributors. It is important to note, however, that the writers of the documents were not rigidly bound by the guidance sheet form which was suggestive rather than limiting in its character.

This restricted type of life history was used for two main reasons. In the first place, through focusing the attention of the writer on that sector of his experience in which the investigators were interested, a fuller and more valuable account was secured without great loss of spontaneity or freedom in the narration; and secondly, the full materials in a large number of documents made possible the statistical tabulation of recurrent experiences.[6] Through this type of specific life history it was possible to gather mass data and itemize recurrent experiences in a way the general autobiography does not ordinarily permit.

Personal interviews were conducted, in most cases, as follow-ups on motion-picture life histories. These interviews were usually an hour to an hour and a half in length, and a full stenographic account was taken. The subject had full knowledge of the presence of the stenographer who, however, was placed at some point behind the subject so as to be out of his range of vision. The interview frequently took the form of a free exchange of experiences, the interviewer talking of his own experiences as a means of inducing the subject to talk freely of his. Since no fixed set of questions was followed, this material secured does not lend itself to statistical tabulation. It has proved quite valuable, however, for illuminating the more intimate effects of motion pictures.

Another method of securing information used mainly in Movies and Conduct was the collection of conversations

( 234) on the subject of motion pictures. These accounts, wherever possible recorded immediately after the conversation in order to assure reports as nearly verbatim as possible, were almost always secured by participants of the groups engaged in the conversations. The purpose of this form of investigation was to secure as natural a picture as possible of the kind of conversation which ordinarily goes on concerning motion pictures. It was felt the content of these conversations would in some sense reflect interests and attitudes and could serve also to show how, through such discussions, an individual may be led to particular interpretations of motion pictures.

Ordinarily these accounts were collected by individuals working in pairs and seeking in this fashion to supplement each other. The reporters were instructed not to give any intimation to their groups that they were engaged in recording the conversations which went on. This precaution was taken in order to prevent the introduction of artifice into the remarks of the group.

Finally, in addition to the use of the motion-picture autobiographies supplemented by interviews and accounts of conversations, a considerable amount of material was collected through the use of direct questionnaires. These schedules, in the main, were devised on the basis of recurring items of experience discovered in the motion-picture life histories. They were employed largely to ascertain approximately what proportions of given populations were influenced in given ways and the tabulated results were inserted into the reports only when the life-history materials clearly showed the presence of given types of motion-picture influences in the experiences of individuals.


Questions invariably arise as to the truthfulness and reliability of personal accounts of experience. In these studies great care was taken to give the contributor no reason or opportunity to falsify his document, and several ways of checking reliability were employed.

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When the subject was first approached special effort was made to impress him with the impartial character of the investigation. He was specifically told the interviewers were not interested in either tracing or denying a relationship between the motion pictures and various forms of conduct of a normal, delinquent, or criminal type, as the case might be. The contributor was asked to present as honestly as possible only those motion-picture experiences he could trace with confidence. They, in the main, had no more reason to affirm than to deny motion-picture influences. This is substantiated by the fact that a large part of the materials collected were of a negative nature. Moreover, the contributor was asked to describe in great detail specific incidents, episodes, or experiences of a concrete character. Only the narration of these specific instances of behavior was regarded as factual in these studies. General expressions of opinion or judgment were not regarded as data and were presented only for what they might be worth.

Several checks on the reliability of the accounts were employed in these studies. In the first place, it was possible in a number of cases to compare the document written by the individual with the statement of his experiences secured later through personal interview. At the time of writing their documents, the subjects had no intimation of the possibility of a subsequent interview covering their motion-picture experiences. It is assumed that the interval of six months elapsing between the two was sufficient for the individual to forget any fictitious or false incidents which he may have given in the autobiography. In no instance was there discovered any discrepancy of importance between the experiences related in the document and those in the interview.

The accounts were also checked for internal consistency. In a few, numbering less than twenty, there was evidence of contradiction in the experience given. These documents, accordingly, were not used in these studies. All of the

( 236) remaining accounts, as far as could be determined by careful scrutiny, were internally consistent.

The chief means of checking the reliability of the experiences given in the written documents was in comparison of document with document. The motion-picture autobiographies were written independently by persons of different schools, factories, and penal and correctional institutions. There was little possibility for the exchange of experiences. The comparison of large numbers of documents coming from different groups of people with no knowledge of each other made it possible to ascertain the general run of experiences. The contents of the documents coming from different sources yielded substantially the same general kind of experiences. This massing of experiences on a number of outstanding facts seems to point to the reliability of the accounts.

Still another source of verification is the comparison of the content of the motion-picture autobiographies with the content of motion-picture conversations collected from other groups of people. Since these conversations, recorded verbatim as far as possible, were collected in natural and na´ve situations, the consistency between them and the autobiographical materials strongly suggests the accuracy of both.

The questionnaire data were verified in the sense that only those statistical tabulations were presented to which the autobiographical materials seemed to give credence; that is, only those instances of behavior where the life-history accounts indicated clearly the existence and nature of given types of motion-picture influence. In using the schedule data as supplemental to the autobiographical documents in this way, these types of materials also tended to corroborate one another.

Finally, where possible, as in the case of inmates of penal and correctional institutions, behavior presented in the accounts was checked with official records and no instances of appreciable discrepancies were found.

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Finally, the materials presented in these studies give a conservative statement of the motion-picture influences. Cumulative or unconscious influences of the movies were not considered in these studies, but that they are to be found and that they are significant is clear. Intimations of these influences appear time and again. Many delinquents and criminals, for instance, will deny that the "movies" have influenced them in their delinquent or criminal careers, but admit and give instances of desires or behavior, in large part to be attributed to the motion pictures, that are ordinarily associated with delinquent or criminal patterns of conduct. Thus, the proportion of offenders that indicate the movies gave them the desire to own and carry a gun is much greater than the number who acknowledge they committed robberies because of cinema influences. Because of these considerations and because of the tendency of contributors to withhold rather than exaggerate motion-picture influences, these reports must be regarded as an understatement rather than an exaggerated account, and as understatements they perhaps better fulfill their exploratory mission.


  1. By Herbert Blumer.
  2. By Blumer and Hauser.
  3. Professor Blumer devised the following scheme and used it with considerable success in securing documents from students.
  4. The students of a class chose a small committee of their own who assigned to each student in the class a code number. To prevent the teacher from identifying the author of the documents, they were turned in under their code numbers. The teacher gave credit to those documents which showed signs of having been seriously written, turned back to the committee a list of the code numbers with the accompanying credit given, and received from the committee a list of the names of the students with the credit given. In this way the committee alone knew the names of the students corresponding to the code numbers, yet the committee had no opportunity to read the papers. Each document came to the teacher as anonymous, yet each student received credit for his or her work." Blumer, Movies and Conduct, p. 7 (MS).
  5. The possibility of too much motivation resulting in the "dressing up" of documents was borne in mind and this problem will be dealt with in the section on devices and safe-guards for ensuring reliability.
  6. See Simmel, "The Sociological Significance of the 'Stranger,' Park and Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1924), p. 322.
  7. These statistical tabulations, since they are based only on overt statements appearing in the accounts, represent a minimum statement of the frequency of given types of influence. The failure of the writer to mention given influences does not necessarily mean they have not appeared in the behavior of the person.

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