The Relation of Motion Pictures to Standards of Morality

Charles C. Peters

There has been a vast amount of argument regarding the extent to which commercial motion pictures are in conflict with our standards of morality. Many persons have been charging the movies with "the vilest and the most insidious immorality," while a few others have condemned them on the ground that they are as timidly conventional in morals as were the old-time Sunday School library books. In this agitation neither side has been able to appeal to objective evidence, either as to what constitutes morality or as to the amount of conflict by motion pictures with it if defined. On the contrary, the discussion has been emotionalistic and propagandist in character and has turned upon each individual spokesman's personal interpretation of what constitutes the demands of morality. This study was conducted to get objective evidence on this question of the exact nature and amount of divergence of conduct in commercial motion pictures from moral standards so that the formulation of social policies regarding the matter might be predicated upon fact rather than upon passion.

At first thought "morality" may seem to be so vague an entity that it could not be studied objectively. On the contrary, it is something very definite and tangible. Morality is merely conformity with the mores of the group, and the mores are merely the ways of acting and evaluating to which the group has become accustomed. Because the members of the group have become so completely habituated to these ways of acting and judging, these habits function so facilely that men feel at peace when performing them and emotionally disturbed and self-conscious when breaking them. This contentment on the one hand, and disturbance on the other, early developed into bases of rationalized judgments of values, so that acts are called

( 252) "right" when they conform with the customs and "wrong" when they conflict with these customs. To reduce "morality" to definiteness, we need, therefore, merely to determine what these mores, these customs, are.

But when we enter upon this task, we find considerable complication for a number of reasons:

1. The mores are very, very many—thousands in number. The group has its made judgments on every type of conduct that is sufficiently recurrent to have led to habit formation. Moreover, the method of response is determined not merely by the situation abstractly considered, but by the balance among the conditioning factors that constitute the situation. When these variants within the types are added to the manifoldness of the types themselves, it is obvious to what vast numbers the individual mores must mount. Moreover, in this delicate balance of conditioning circumstances, accident, particularly the suggestion of members of the group with more or less prestige, may determine the response of the group in a different direction from what it would have been had this accidental component exerted its force in another direction.

2. Opportunities to make precise observations of responses under perfectly typical conditions may be rare. Observations may need to be too few to ensure reliability, or may need to be taken in artificial forms which destroy their validity. Particularly when these responses must be determined by verbal testimony, there may be a certain hypocrisy about the report—especially in periods when the mores are changing.

3. In these days of the interlacing of groups, there may not be uniformity in the reactions of the individuals even though they appear to belong to the same social groups. The solidarity, in other words, that sociologists predicate for a social group may be far from complete. Groups, too, may differ from one another so that there would be different moralities within the same large geographical area.

Our problem became, then, to invent some device by which we could ascertain the mores of groups with sufficient definiteness that we could deal with them quantitatively and in a form that would permit a precise showing of the degree of parallelism between the conduct exemplified in motion-picture shows and these approved customs of the groups. This we achieved by making "scales" of acts of varying degrees of "goodness" or "badness" (that is, varying amounts of positive or negative divergence from

( 253) the mores) in respect to a number of types of situations. We should have been glad to have each of these acts occur in a natural setting in social life and to measure objectively the responses of a large sampling of the group to it; but that was, of course, not feasible. Our second choice would have been to show these types in a motion picture, or other dramatic representation, and similarly measure responses; but that, too, proved impracticable. We, therefore, set these acts before respondents verbally and secured from them verbal testimony of their emotional reactions. Limitation on space and on the time of the readers made it necessary for us to describe each of the acts briefly, but we tried to make the descriptions vivid enough and complete enough that the respondent would fall into his, customary reaction to it, or at least would recognize how he reacts to such an incident when it occurs in real life. Each paragraph carried at its head a caption more briefly describing the act. Following are two examples:


At times, husbands are more sentimental than at others. This evening as Mrs. Waverly sat upon the davenport listening to the radio program, her husband came up behind her and quietly kissed her on the cheek.


It was one of those rare days in spring, and Joan and Kenneth were taking advantage of it by walking along the country road arm in arm. From time to time, and utterly disregarding the passing vehicles, Kenneth would lean over and kiss Joan on the cheek, or again they would stop and do the thing right.

Three hundred twenty-six such samples of conduct were submitted to 187 persons, representing a fairly random sample of society, for a determination of the degree of "badness" of each of the acts. These 326 bits of conduct were not a sampling of morality as a whole, but of only four phases of it that are extensively played up in commercial motion pictures; aggressiveness of a girl in love making, kissing, democratic attitudes and practices, and the treatment of children by parents. The specimens represented, however, different degrees of "badness" of an

( 254) aggregate of 54 type-variants within these four phases of morality, so that their evaluation involved the making of essentially 54 scales. The 187 respondents were asked to separate the 326 cards on which the descriptions of these acts were printed into three piles:

1. Those that they disapproved of—that grated on their sensibilities

2. Those that struck them as O. K. but nothing to brag about

3. Those that not only aroused no resentment, but actually challenged the admiration of the rated.

From the percentage of persons placing the items in the three piles, a numerical index of "badness" was derived in terms of the sigma placement of the mid-neutral point along the base line of a normal distribution. The values theoretically could run from plus 3.00 to minus 3.00, but in fact this whole range was not used because there was no item to which we got a hundred per cent disapproval or a hundred per cent admiration. The process of deriving these values is too technical to permit description in the space we may take here, but it is fully explained in the author's forthcoming monograph. It is sufficient to say that there resulted from the process scales of a "ladder" type with quantitative indexes for their different levels, not unlike the scales employed for measuring the merit of English composition or of handwriting.

With these scales, the mores of eighteen different social groups were measured within the areas covered by the scales. That is, it was determined how far down on each scale conduct might go and yet be within the approval of 25 per cent of each group, or 50 per cent, or 75 per cent, or any other percentage. With these same scales a sampling of 142 feature motion pictures and 42 comics was rated by concensus of first three and later five judges, the scales being handled in much the same manner as that in which English composition scales are employed in rating compositions. In our monograph, we show in great detail

( 255) the percentage of feature films and of comics lying above and below the 25 per cent line, the 50 per cent line, and the 75 per cent line of approval, of admiration, and of disapproval of each of the social groups whose mores we had measured.

Our measurements proved to be surprisingly reliable. The reliability coefficients for the scale values ranged from .983 to .994 and those for the measurement of the mores of groups with the scales, from .941 to .989. Motion pictures could be rated with the use of the scales by committees of five members each with reliabilities usually above.90. These reliability coefficients are as high as those achieved by the better objective educational tests. They show that the technique we developed is one of great promise for studying scientifically not only our particular problem but also other social phenomena hitherto inaccessible to scientific research.

Any report of our findings that is to do justice to the study must be one of great detail, since the conflict with standards of morality was found to be one of degree rather than of presence or absence. But in general we may say that motion pictures were found to be most in conflict with the mores, in the sense that many scenes lay below the point in "badness" where half of a random sample of the members of society would approve them, in respect to aggressiveness of a girl in love making. In this area 70 per cent of the scenes in feature films lay below the "approval index" of our sample of the total population and only 30 per cent above. The others lay in descending order of amount of conflict as follows: kissing, democratic attitudes and practices, the treatment of children by parents. In respect to the last, motion pictures are distinctly above the mores in the sense that 75 per cent of the scene lay above the "approval index" of our 18 groups combined and only 25 per cent below this "approval index."

But any complete picture of the situation must be got from an inspection of the detailed findings given in our full report.


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