The blogosphere is abuzz about a survey conducted by the Boston Public Health Commission found that teens had strikingly permissive attitudes toward domestic violence.  The Commission conducted an informal poll of 200 Boston youths, aged 12-19, asking them about their attitudes toward Chris Brown’s abuse of Rihanna.  Nearly half the teens thought fighting was normal in relationships, that Rihanna was to blame for the incident, and that Chris Brown was being treated “unfairly” in the wake of the incident. Based on the poll, the Boston Globe described teenagers are a “… generation of youths who seem to have grown accustomed, even insensitive, to domestic violence.”

But of course, the four scariest words in social science are “an informal poll concluded”. I spent a bit of the evening chatting with my friend Carol-Ann, who is a sociologist, and I figured might be able to tell me if these findings were kosher or not.  Carol-Ann pointed me to the summary of some Eurobarometer data that stood in stark contrast to the Boston findings.  In those data, some 94% of Europeans aged 15 and older found domestic violence to be “unacceptable in all circumstances.”

But what about the United States?  I decided to grab a copy of the 2005 World Values Survey and see what evidence of permissiveness toward spousal abuse I could find.  The WVS uses a representative national sample of over 1,000 participants.  In other words, a touch more rigourous than the Boston poll.  One question asked participants whether a “man beat[ing] his wife” could always be justified, never be justified, or something in between.  On a ten-point scale from never to always justifiable, fully 82.9% of respondents chose ‘1’, representing the least possible willingness to treat spousal abuse as justifiable.  Count everyone who answered 5 or less on the scale (i.e., those leaning towards calling abuse unjustifiable), and you’ve accounted for 97.7% of the participants.

But what about age?  The WVS doesn’t have any of the 12-17 year olds included in the Boston sample, but it does include a large number of respondents in their late teens and early twenties.  So, are young people dramatically more likely to view domestic abuse as justifiable?  Nope.  I regressed age on attitudes toward spousal abuse, and found that the effect of age was statistically significant but small (explaining about one and a half percent of the overall variance in attitudes), and in the opposite direction from what we would predict from the Boston poll.  In other words, the younger you are, the less likely you are to consider spousal abuse acceptable.

There is an interesting and important puzzle here when contrasting the Boston poll with the WVS data.  How do we explain the Boston teenagers’ willingness to endorse the behaviour of an abuser and blame their victim?  A few suggestions spring to mind:  The first is that the effect is driven by teens and pre-teens’ susceptibility to media framing effects.  In other words, it’s less about attitudes toward abuse and more about how the media has covered the Rihanna-Chris Brown affair.  A related, broader, and more troubling explanation would be that people (and perhaps teens in particular) have strongly negative attitudes toward spousal abuse in the abstract, but much more permissive views about specific instances of abuse.

So there are certainly interesting issues raised by the Boston poll – but given the WVS data, I’m still betting against the idea that there is a generation in waiting that is “accustomed and insensitive” to domestic abuse.

Related:  The Situationist adds just-world beliefs as another possible explanation for teens’ propensity to blame the victim