Crime and Violence: Desensitization in Victims to Watching Criminal Events

by Rafael Di Tella, Lucia Freira, Ramiro H. Gálvez, Ernesto Schargrodsky, Diego Shalom, and Mariano Sigman

Overview — Findings from an experiment show that victims of crimes become desensitized to violence in biological and cognitive ways. These results may help explain a troubling contradiction in Latin America: rising crime along with decreasing public concern about it. As the rate of crime victimization increases, a larger group of the population shares this increased desensitization.

Author Abstract

We study desensitization to crime in a lab experiment by showing footage of criminal acts to a group of subjects, some of whom have been previously victimized. We measure biological markers of stress and behavioral indices of cognitive control before and after treated participants watch a series of real, crime-related videos (while the control group watches non-crime-related videos). Not previously victimized participants exposed to the treatment video show significant changes in cortisol level, heart rate, and measures of cognitive control. Instead, previously victimized individuals who are exposed to the treatment video show biological markers and cognitive performance comparable to those measured in individuals exposed to the control video. These results suggest a phenomenon of desensitization or habituation of victims to crime exposure.

Paper Information