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