The Effect of Motion Pictures on the Social Attitudes of High-School Children[1]

William H. Short

The experiments were carried on to study the effect of motion pictures on the social attitudes of children. The effect of a motion picture on attitude towards nationality, race, crime, war, capital punishment, prohibition, and the punishment of criminals has been studied.

Briefly, the procedure has been to measure the attitude of a group of students by means of an attitude scale or a paired comparison schedule, to show the group a motion picture which has been judged as having effective value on the issue in question, and to measure the attitude of the group again the day after the picture has been shown.

It is quite obvious that a suitable motion picture is the first essential of such an experiment. A suitable picture is one which pertains definitely to some issue such as those enumerated above; secondly, it is one which we can ask high-school superintendents to send their students to see; and thirdly, the picture must be fairly recent and well made so that children will not be distracted by the fashions and photography of the picture. Suggestions of possible films were obtained from a number of sources. The pictures we have used have been chosen by reviewing between six and eight hundred films. By reviewing that number we do not mean to imply that we have seen all of them, but press sheets, which include the advertising copy and synopses of the film, have been obtained from the motion-picture distributors. These synopses are not for publication but are intended to give the exhibitors a fairly good idea of the picture. Consequently they were quite serviceable to us. The pictures which appeared from the synopses

( 221) to have possibilities for use in the experiments were seen by a committee of three or four. By this process, films were chosen which seemed to satisfy the criteria given.

The second essential is an instrument for measuring attitude. The paired comparison schedule or attitude scale used in each experiment is given in the report of that experiment. The paired comparison schedules used to measure attitude towards nationality and crime, and four of the attitude scales used were constructed especially for these experiments. The scales which were available and which were suitable for use with the motion pictures chosen were used by permission of the authors.

One of the projects undertaken was the construction of a scale of attitudes towards the motion pictures. We select this to describe the method of constructing an attitude scale.

A collection of opinions about the movies was made, consisting of two hundred fifty-eight statements. These opinions, each of which reflects an attitude towards the movies, vary from statements decidedly in favor of the movies through neutral statements to those very much opposed to the movies. They were obtained from literature on the subject, from conversation, and from direct questioning of subjects whose education and experience varied from that of seventh-grade children to that of graduate students in the university.

Each statement was then typewritten on a separate card. As a preliminary method of eliminating the most unsatisfactory and retaining the best statements as well as to get an approximate idea of the scale values of the statements, the method of equal-appearing intervals was used with a small group of sorters. Twenty-five people, who had some understanding of the method being used and who were carefully chosen to make sure that the directions would be thoroughly understood and complied with, sorted the cards into eleven piles according to the following instructions :

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These cards contain statements about the value of the movies. Please arrange these cards in eleven piles so that those ex-pressing attitudes most strongly in favor of the movies are in pile one, those which are neutral are in pile six, and those which are most strongly against the movies are in the eleventh pile. The intermediate piles should represent steps in appreciation or depreciation of the movies.

Do not try to get the same number of cards in each pile. They are not evenly distributed.

The numbers on the cards are code numbers and have nothing to do with the arrangement in piles.

You will find it easier to sort them if you look over a number of the slips, chosen at random, before you begin to sort.

The results of these twenty-five sortings were tabulated to show in which piles each statement was placed by the group of sorters. The scale values were then determined graphically. As an example of the method used one of the graphs is reproduced below.


The figure represents statement number 101 of the original group which happens to be retained in the final scale as number 12. The graph shows that all the sorters classified the statement as favorable to the movies. The statement reads, "Movies increase one's appreciation of

( 223) beauty." The curve crosses the 50 per cent level at the value of 2.9. This scale value is such that half the readers classified it as more favorable to movies and half of them as less favorable.

The scale value is indicated by the arrow head on the base line. The lighter lines on either side of the arrow head indicate the quartile range of values assigned to the statements. The Q-value in this case is 1.10. This is a measure of the ambiguity of the statement.

For the application of a more exact scaling technique one hundred statements were chosen from the two hundred and fifty-eight. The choice was based on the following criteria :

1.  A continuity of scale values; i. e., a selection of approximately the same number from each region of the scale 

2.  Selection of statements with small Q-values 

3.  Diction and clearness of the statement itself 

The average Q-value of the statements retained was 1.18 with a range of .40 to 1.90; while the average Q-value of those statements not retained was 1.44 with a range of .50 to 3.25.

Two hundred sets of these one hundred statements were then printed on three by five cards.

The one hundred statements were then arranged in ten envelopes for rank order sortings. The first envelope contained the fifteen statements most strongly in favor of the movies as determined by the preliminary scaling method. The second envelope contained statements 8 to 22, the third envelope 18 to 32, and so on, the tenth envelope containing statements 86 to 100. Thus it is seen that fifty of the one hundred statements were repeated in two envelopes.

The statements in each envelope were in random order and the envelopes were also put in random order. The ten envelopes of statements were presented to the people who were to sort them with the following directions :

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Each envelope in this series contains fifteen cards. On each card is a statement about the movies. Some of these statements are in favor of the movies, and some of them are against the movies. Will you arrange the fifteen statements in each envelope so that the statement which is most in favor of the movies is on top, face up, and the statement which is least in favor of the movies or most strongly against the movies is on the bottom. The cards should all be arranged so that each card is more in favor of the movies than the card under it and less in favor of the movies than the card above it.

In considering each statement ask yourself this question:

How strongly in favor of the movies is a person who endorses or agrees with this statement? Try to disregard your own attitude towards the statements.

The identification numbers on the cards have no significance.

Two hundred people sorted the statements according to the above directions, putting the fifteen statements in each envelope in rank order.

The results of these sortings were tabulated, and from the tabulations we determined the proportion of times each statement was rated as more strongly in favor of the movies than every other statement. From these proportions the scale separations of the statements in each envelope were determined from the formula


in which (b—a) is the scale separation between a and b.

Xka is the deviation (k—a) in terms of the standard deviation. It is ascertained from the probability tables by means of the observed proportions k>a.

Xkb is the deviation (k—b) in terms of the standard deviation.

n is the number of statements minus one.

Since there were overlapping statements in each adjacent pair of envelopes, the scale separations for the whole set of one hundred statements could be calculated. The final scale values of the one hundred statements ranged from 4.74, the most strongly in favor of the movies, to 0.00, the most strongly against the movies.

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The one hundred statements were then divided into ten ,groups, with a range of .5 scale step in each group. Subsequently four statements were selected from each group, arriving at a final attitude scale consisting of forty statements approximately evenly spaced on the scale.

In scoring the attitude scale we cannot say that one score is better or worse than another; we can only say that one person's attitude towards the movies is more or less favorable than another person's. It is purely arbitrary that attitudes unfavorable to the movies have lower scale values than favorable attitudes.

Any individual's attitude is measured by the median scale value of all the statements he checks. The person who has the higher score is more favorably inclined towards the movies than the person with a lower score.

For the purpose of comparing groups, the distributions of attitudes in each group can be plotted and it can then be said whether and how much one group is more favorable to the movies than another group.

The experimental groups vary in age and grade range, including children of the fourth to the eighth grades, high-school students, and in one experiment, college students. These groups were available through the coöperation of the principals and superintendents of the schools.

The general plan of the experiments was as follows : A scale of attitude was given in the school. After the scale was given the students were told that the scale would be given again after an interval of about two weeks. No direct connection was made between the application of the attitude scale and the presentation of the film. The interval between the first application of the scale and the motion picture varied slightly, but was in general about two weeks. Tickets which were printed especially were distributed in the school the day the film was shown; these tickets were signed by the students and presented for admittance to the theater. By this means, it was possible to have an accurate record of those attending the picture. Only the stu-

( 226) -dents who took the attitude scale before and after and attended the showing of the film were included in the experimental group. The scale of attitude was given in the school the morning following the presentation of the motion picture.

The experiments include studies of the effect of a single motion picture, on attitudes, the cumulative effect of two or more pictures pertaining to the same issue, the difference in the effect of a motion picture on different age groups and the persistence of the effect of a motion picture.


  1. This article was prepared by Mr. William H. Short from a more extensive report on the same subject by Miss Ruth C. Peterson and Dr. L.L. Thurstone. The article is largely quoted from the report.

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