Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Why Does Crime Feel Exponentially Higher, When It's Materially Lower?

Every day we hear about some new horrific event taking place globally. The common view is that crime is rampant and the United States is headed in the wrong direction. But that view is not supported by facts. In a Citylab article related to the recent level of crime, it was noted:

"The story is actually better than we all anticipated it would be," says John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center. "Violence is down a little bit. Property crime is down a lot… and all of this suggests that crime in America is continuing to move in the right direction.”
Over the longer-term, the decline in violent crime is even more notable. Despite the United States 21% population increase since 1995, violent crimes were down -35%, translating into a decline in violent crime per capita of almost 50%. Rape, murder, and robbery were all down over this period in absolute terms and down a lot in per capita terms.

Source: FBI

Why Does it Feel Like Crime is Getting Worse?

My theory is the perceived increase is related to the way information flow has made the world a much smaller / more local place.

One exaggerated example: if 150 years ago you lived in a 500 person town and your local newspaper maybe covered news from a 10 town population of 5,000, the sample size for your local crimes was that 5,000 person population. With a violent crime rate of 1000 per 100,000 people, you might hear about 50 crimes per year (or about 1 a week). If the crime rate were to move lower, given the same population, the decline would be felt via the reduced number of headlines in the local paper (see example A below). However, if a new paper came to town sharing news from a much larger base population, despite a material decline in overall crime, the number of crimes being reported might spike to 1 per day (outlined in example B).

Our Local Community has Grown Exponentially

Recently, we haven't just experienced a small increase to the size of our local population (from a town to neighboring towns, to our state, or even to our country), but the entire world (or the entire universe if you really want to freak yourself out). In addition, when news flowed through print, it was limited by what could be reported by space (only so much paper) and timing (only news could be reported as of a certain time each day before it became old news). Now, the cycle is infinitely larger and continuous.

If I was scared of being attacked by a homeless man, there is news for that. If I was scared my children would be abducted, there is news for that. Hell... if I were scared of the dangers of Pokemon Go, there is plenty of news for that. When the world becomes your local neighborhood, a 50% decline in the violent crime rate over the last two decades still means there are tens or hundreds of thousands more opportunities each day to freak out (note the y-axis in the chart below is in log form because of the exponential nature).

This won't stop any time soon. People have evolved over thousands of years to seek out scary news and freak out about things we perceive can harm us. Combine this evolutionary characteristic with the for profit nature of news organizations (fear sells) and strawmen politicians build utilizing some randomly occuring event as "proof" it happens all the time and you have a recipe for disaster.

The key is to remember that if properly weighted, only a tiny fraction of news would be bad news. Just imagine the sentiment if it that was how the world was accurately perceived.