Nearly twenty years ago, in The Fast and the Furious, bald gearhead Dominic Toretto told the world, “I live my life a quarter mile at a time.” Played by gravel-voiced Vin Diesel, Toretto has, in a series that now spans eight movies, with a ninth and tenth on the way, evolved from an antihero—a charming, dangerous criminal—into a family man. But the movies are still full of zero-consequences stunt driving that made them a global phenomenon.
A trio of researchers at Harvard and Duke asked whether watching high-wattage movie stars perform impossible stunt-driving for two hours affected how audience members drove their own cars. Are they more likely to leave the theater feeling like Dominic Toretto, peeling rubber out of the parking lot?
It’s a variant of a complicated question: How does the media we consume (TV shows, movies, video games, music, even books) affect our actions? Can watching bad behavior—like jumping a supercar from one skyscraper to another—make us more likely to engage in rule-breaking, even if it’s not quite as egregious?
Writing for the New York Times’ “Upshot” blog, the researchers note that studies suggests a link between media consumption and risky behaviors; they mention “unprotected sex, binge drinking, fast driving and even violence.” And a meta-analysis (which combines data from many studies) showed an association between what they call “risk-glorifying media” and risky behavior among the people who consume it.
You can already see the problem, though. A correlation between taking risks and also liking to watch movies that glorify risk-taking doesn’t tell us that the movies are provoking risk-taking. It only tells us that the two things often occur together; it’s easy to see how a person who lives their life a quarter mile at a time would be drawn to movie characters who live by the same impulsive code.
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Those studies also tend to take place in a vacuum; they often measure attitudes, separate from real-world environments. So researchers would rather look at what they call “natural experiments”—when something happens in the world that allows us to examine its effects in detail. In the Netherlands for example, violent crime actually decreased after the release of Grand Theft Auto, providing evidence that video games may actually provide an outlet for brutality that might otherwise happen in the real world. But in a less upbeat finding, researchers noted that Google searches related to suicidal intent increased after Netflix released 13 Reasons Why, which dramatized a teenage suicide.
Which brings us back to The Fast and the Furious. The release of each new movie in the franchise provides a natural experiment for researchers, who used detailed traffic violation data from Montgomery County, Maryland, to examine all 192,892 speeding tickets issued from 2012 to 2017.
That time frame includes the release weekends for the three most recent Fast movies. Researchers analyzed the average miles per hour over the speed limit drivers were charged with on a given day. And lo and behold, they saw something. Comparing the three weekends before a Fast movie’s release with the three weekends after it, they saw the average MPH increase almost 20 percent. Following the opening of a Fast movie, the average went from 16 miles per hour over the speed limit to 19 miles per hour over it.
In other words, people did seem to drive faster though the average doesn’t seem like that big of a jump. Were they also driving more furiously? Well, researchers also found that rates of extreme speeding increased. Very few drivers were charged with driving more than 40 miles per hour over the speed limit, but after the release of a Fast movie, the number doubled, reaching 2 percent of all violations. What’s more, researchers used location data and found that increases in extreme speeding were clustered around movie theaters, often within two miles.
Sure, that could just be a coincidence rather than Toretto wannabes tearing ass out of the theater parking lot. But the researchers found no similar correlation with releases for the new Hunger Games movies which don’t glorify fast driving; they also found that the increases didn’t occur at the same time in the previous year when no Fast movie had been released so it’s not like it’s a seasonal trend. It’s worth pointing out that the analysis was not published in a peer-reviewed journal. And it’s worth sharing this tweet from one of the story’s authors, Anupam Jena, an economist, a physician, and associate professor at Harvard Medical School:
The data also doesn’t tell us much about other kinds of risky behavior that may be affected by media. It’s fairly broad information—it doesn’t include the drivers’ age or type of car, for example—and only covers one US county over a five-year period. Still, the researchers say, it’s evidence that seeing Dominic Toretto live his life a quarter mile at a time may make audience members want to do the same. Head's up for when movies nine and ten come out.
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