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Oct. 15 2009 - 8:19 am | 151 views | 0 recommendations | 19 comments

Crime & Perception

Over at The Monkey Cage, John Sides notes this year’s Gallup poll on crime, which includes this graph on Americans’ perceptions of whether crime is increasing or decreasing year-to-year:

zcila1kv4ucnshe8bejifaSides wants to look at this versus the actual crime rate year-to-year. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure his graph makes sense because it compares the crime rate — as opposed to the change in the crime rate year-to-year — versus this public opinion data.

What interests me, though, isn’t just how the perception of the change in the crime rate matches up to the reality of the change in the crime rate every year (though, I’d like to see that graph, too UPDATE: Sides takes a stab here). What interests me is that the percentage of Americans who believe that there is more crime in the U.S. every year is consistently so high.

With the exception of 2001 and 2002 (9/11 effect?), between 52% and 89% of Americans every year since 1990 have thought that crime is on the rise. That’s a pretty remarkable statistic, given that crime declined steadily nationally throughout the 1990s and has remained essentially level in the 2000s. Whatever the year-to-year correspondence is, we know that people have gotten the big picture wildly wrong, year after year.

That is, people pretty much always seem to think that this year is worse than last, regardless of the actual trends.

Does this sound like anything else to you? How about: This generation is so much stupider/lazier/ruder than the last; politics is so much dirtier these days; the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

For whatever reason, this seems to be the default human predisposition. Is it availability bias? You hear about some terrible things happening during the course of every year, and — slowly forgetting all the terrible things that happened the year before and the year before that and so on — you assume that this year must be the worst ever?

What’s funny, though, is that even as people say things are getting worse every year, they still rate the seriousness of crime every year about the same:

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People know how serious they think crime is. But they probably don’t have much sense how serious they thought it was last year. And when forced to focus on the issue, they just assume that things have gotten worse — as they always do and as they always will.

For reference, here’s what’s actually happened to crime over the past quarter century:

ncsucr2

But just try convincing the average citizen that the country has actually gotten safer. Hint: Charts and numbers and reality won’t help.


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  1. collapse expand

    You hear about some terrible things happening during the course of every year, and — slowly forgetting all the terrible things that happened the year before and the year before that and so on — you assume that this year must be the worst ever?

    So you say that you hear about terrible things, so you think things are terrible. If you heard more often about good things – police catching criminals, DAs sending them to jail, social workers implementing programs that kept ex- or potential criminals off the streets, would the availability bias be checked?

    • collapse expand

      A bit, maybe. But I think even what you’re proposing would swim against the current of how humans think. There’s a reason, after all, we have and watch these news shows that emphasize the negative — we’re pessimistic by nature. Which, possibly, is an evolutionary adaptation that keeps us always on our toes.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Your reply to Michael took the words right out of my mouth. I think that’s exactly it — we’re adapted to expect danger so we can be ready to react. There’s really no good reason, from an evolutionary standpoint, to expect goodness and light. We don’t have to prepare for the good stuff (for the most part); we have to prepare to get blindsighted by calamity.

  3. collapse expand

    Mr. Sagar,

    Your posting accurately captures a broader phenomenon, the perception of risk is often very different from the reality of risk. The classic case is that of airplane travel vs. automobile travel. Many more people die in automobile accidents than airplane accidents every year, by a large factor. In 2007 there were 136 air plane accidents with 965 deaths. In contrast, in the same years there were 37,435 fatal car crashes killing 41,259 people.

    • collapse expand

      [Sorry, I had some technical difficulties, I lost half of my post.]

      Despite these numbers, people overwhelmingly fear air travel much more than automobile travel. It is partially a matter of “reporting bias”, people only hear about a few car crashes and fatalities but they hear about almost every plane crash. Also when a plane crashes occur, a lot of people die and it is big and fiery. When a car crash occurs, it is only a few people who die and it is rarely very dramatic. People confuse the intensity of an accident with how much risk it actually poses.

      The same is true of crime. People only hear about crimes that are “news-worthy” and the number of crimes reported in the news remains pretty constant. Further, when crime goes up, it makes the news but if the crime rates drops, well that is not news. So people perceive the rate of crime (based on what they see on the news) as constantly increasing, irrespective of the actual rates. Of course the number of “shocking” crimes generally remains the same, the ones people remember.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Currently here in California there is a debate over over crowded prisons. Seems the state is broke and can’t afford to build more prisons and may have to release non-violent prisoners, as in drug offenders caught for possession. During this debate I was surprised to hear the right, who are horrified by this prospect. These are the same people who advocated new prisons and have enacted three strikes to stem the out of control crime wave in the state and apparently have not read the statistics in the last eight years.

    Every year they claim things are getting worse but this year, thinking that three strikes, a law that has sent someone up for life for stealing a pizza, this year they are saying crime is way down because of three strikes.

    That is what I love about numbers and stats, what Benjamin Disraeli referred to as “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

  5. collapse expand

    There is actually a more rational explanation for this than “Kids! They don’t make ‘em like they usta make ‘em!”

    The fact is that around 70% of people get all or most of their news from local television news. Local television news programs specialize in hyping local crime. This gives the perception of greater crime rates than is actually the case. That emphasis on blood and guts and shoot ‘em ups around the neighborhood is all out of proportion to the actual incidence of crime in the community, and one finds a generalized fear of being a crime victim than the actual probability.

    There have been a number of studies to this effect over the years. The definitive study was done back in the late 70’s, and I can’t find the reference right off, but the same effect has been found very consistently over time and across geography,

    • collapse expand

      What’s interesting, though, is that people don’t just say “there’s a ton of crime” every year. They say every year that it’s *increasing*. Very funny quirk of how we think.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I disagree with your interpretation of the graph. You say “What’s funny, though, is that even as people say things are getting worse every year, they still rate the seriousness of crime every year about the same” but actually the middle graph is saying that a relatively consistent *group of people* think that “the problem of crime is extremely serious/very serious.” That’s not the same thing at all. A relatively consistent *group of people* also get the majority of their information about the world from local venues.

        It would be interesting to cross-tab this data with patterns of consumption of news. Local versus network versus newspaper versus none.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    Here’s an abstract of research published by the peer-reviewed Journal of Communication that supports my prior post.

    Television News and the Cultivation of Fear of Crime
    Daniel Romer, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Sean Aday

    “The results indicate that across a wide spectrum of the population and independent of local crime rates, viewing local television news is related to increased fear of and concern about crime. These results support cultivation theory’s predicted effects of television on the public.”

    Wiley InterScience :: JOURNALS :: Journal of Communication

  7. collapse expand

    Bit late to the party but – I’d be very surprised if the same were not true of the UK.

    The trends in crime have been similar to those in the US (AFAIK the trends are similar in most developed countries) but the perception of crime is that it’s getting worse.

    The current opposition party (Conservatives) has adopted the slogan “Broken Britain” and basically claim that the current government has made crime etc much worse. The statistics say otherwise, but no-one trusts them.

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