Chapter 3

Unbelievable Stories About Apathy and Altruism


Why did 38 people watch Kitty Genovese be murdered? . . . With neighbors like these . . . What caused the 1960s crime explosion? . . . How the ACLU encourages crime . . . Leave It to Beaver: not as innocent as you think . . . The roots of altruism, pure and impure . . . Who visits retirement homes? . . . Natural disasters and slow news days . . . Economists make like Galileo and hit the lab . . . The brilliant simplicity of the Dictator game . . . People are so generous! . . . Thank goodness for “donorcycles” . . . The great Iranian kidney experiment . . . From driving a truck to the ivory tower . . . Why don’t real people behave like people in the lab? . . . The dirty rotten truth about altruism . . . Scarecrows work on people too . . . Kitty Genovese revisited.

Together, the baby boom and the declining rate of imprisonment explain less than half of the 1960s crime spike. Although a host of other hypotheses have been advanced— including the great migration of African-Americans from the rural South to northern cities and the return of Vietnam vets scarred by war— all of them combined still cannot explain the crime surge. Decades later, most criminologists remain perplexed.

The answer might be right in front of our faces, literally: television. Maybe Beaver Cleaver and his picture-perfect TV family weren’t just a casualty of the changing times (Leave It to Beaver was canceled in 1963, the same year Kennedy was assassinated). Maybe they were actually a cause of the problem.

People have long posited that violent TV shows lead to violent behavior, but that claim is not supported by data. We are making an entirely different argument here. Our claim is that children who grew up watching a lot of TV, even the most innocuous family-friendly shows, were more likely to engage in crime when they got older.

Testing this hypothesis isn’t easy. You can’t just compare a random bunch of kids who watched a lot of TV with those who didn’t. The ones who were glued to the TV are sure to differ from the other children in countless ways beyond their viewing habits.

A more believable strategy might be to compare cities that got TV early with those that got it much later.

We wrote earlier that cable TV came to different parts of India at different times, a staggered effect that made it possible to measure TV’s impact on rural Indian women. The initial roll out of TV in the United States was even bumpier. This was mainly due to a four-year interruption, from 1948 to 1952, when the Federal Communications Commission declared a moratorium on new stations so the broadcast spectrum could be reconfigured.

Some places in the United States started receiving signals in the mid-1940s while others had no TV until a decade later. As it turns out, there is a stark difference in crime trends between cities that got TV early and those that got it late. These two sets of cities had similar rates of violent crime before the introduction of TV. But by 1970, violent crime was twice as high in the cities that got TV early relative to those that got it late. For property crime, the early-TV cities started with much lower rates in the 1940s than the late-TV cities, but ended up with much higher rates.

There may of course be other differences between the early-TV cities and the late-TV cities. To get around that, we can compare children born in the same city in, say, 1950 and 1955. So in a city that got TV in 1954, we are comparing one age group that had no TV for the first four years of life with another that had TV the entire time. Because of the staggered introduction of TV, the cutoff between the age groups that grew up with and without TV in their early years varies widely across cities. This leads to specific predictions about which cities will see crime rise earlier than others— as well as the age of the criminals doing the crimes.

So did the introduction of TV have any discernible effect on a given city’s crime rate?

The answer seems to be yes, indeed. For every extra year a young person was exposed to TV in his first 15 years, we see a 4 percent increase in the number of property-crime arrests later in life and a 2 percent increase in violent-crime arrests. According to our analysis, the total impact of TV on crime in the 1960s was an increase of 50 percent in property crimes and 25 percent in violent crimes.

Why did TV have this dramatic effect?

Our data offer no firm answers. The effect is largest for children who had extra TV exposure from birth to age four. Since most four year-olds weren’t watching violent shows, it’s hard to argue that content was the problem.

It may be that kids who watched a lot of TV never got properly socialized, or never learned to entertain themselves. Perhaps TV made the have-nots want the things the haves had, even if it meant stealing them.

Or maybe it had nothing to do with the kids at all; maybe Mom and Dad became derelict when they discovered that watching TV was a lot more entertaining than taking care of the kids. Or maybe early TV programs somehow encouraged criminal behavior. The Andy Griffith Show, a huge hit that debuted in 1960, featured a friendly sheriff who didn’t carry a gun and his extravagantly inept deputy, named Barney Fife. Could it be that all the would-be criminals who watched this pair on TV concluded that the police simply weren’t worth being afraid of?