Sociology and Psychology

By Snyder, Scott | Adolescence, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Sociology and Psychology

Snyder, Scott, Adolescence


This paper is the second part of a review of the phenomenology of movie portrayals of juvenile delinquency, the first part having described the epidemiology and criminology of the content of such films (Snyder, 1995).

The historical significance of movies as both a visual representation and causative factor in juvenile delinquency is significant. Movies (and other forms of visual media often depict a high-consumption lifestyle that is largely unattainable for most youth. The quick pacing and rapid, up-tempo montages produce a visual experience of constant stimulation, and may induce a gap between media-fueled expectations of material gratification and experience that fails to meet them (Gitlin, 1990). Youth, especially delinquent youth from deprived backgrounds, may be especially sensitized to such influences. Shoplifting, auto theft, and petty larceny, for example, may represent ways delinquent youth attempt to bridge the gap.

Movies and other media may serve as control systems for the working through of psychological and social conflicts. Youthful audiences may experience and transact their inner conflicts, desires, and fears within the managed forms of the motion picture. The star system developed as a crucial element, joining the movies and their youthful audiences to the consumer, pleasure-seeking society (Ewen, 1988). The stars have become part of a media-fueled fantasy world, by which youthful audiences can indulge in the panoply of contemporary American culture.

But such potentially positive aspects of the motion picture experience may be counterbalanced by its proclivity to psychologically damage today's youth. The significant influence on youth, and delinquents in particular, may be understood through the concept of social learning theory, which proposes that repeated exposure to almost any type of stimulus tends to induce positive feelings toward it. Bandura (1986) suggested that aggression is learned primarily through imitation (modeling) and sustained through various forms of intermittent reinforcement. He felt that visual media were especially influential since they (1) taught actual methods of aggression, (2) often showed few of the normal social restraints in expressing aggression, (3) desensitized viewers to violence through repeated exposure, and (4) taught methods of rationalizing and excusing personal responsibility for aggression. Other aberrant behaviors of youthful offenders may be modeled in similar ways.


The empirical research in the area of the personality of the juvenile delinquent is some of the most extensive in all of psychiatry and psychology. In reviewing the literature, one of the few consistent findings is that delinquents score higher on measurements of psychopathy (Arbuthnot et al., 1987).

Quay (1987) has proposed that delinquents can be divided into four identifiable subgroups. He found that the vast majority of factor-analytic studies also identified four major underlying dimensions associated with delinquency.

The first subgroup is known as the undersocialized aggressive delinquent, characterized as assaultive, disobedient, destructive, disloyal, boisterous, and with a lack of concern for others. In addition, this subgroup is resistant to change, causes great difficulty for society, and has the most guarded prognosis for adult adjustment. Movie examples of this subtype include Bad Boys (1983), Knock on Any Door (1949), and Rumble Fish (1983). This subgroup is also seen in the brutal reenactment of the Charles Starkweather-Carol Fugate murder spree through the midwest in 1958, which was the theme of the movie Badlands (1974). The Starkweather character is portrayed as a social reject who kills innocent people out of boredom.

The second subgroup is the socialized aggressive delinquent. These delinquents are involved in group stealing, associate with bad companions, are loyal to delinquent friends, are truant, and frequently stay out late at night. …

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