The Psychology of Why Americans Are Afraid of Historically Low Crime Levels

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Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last night at the Republican National Convention, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani riffed on the evening’s theme of Make America Safe Again. The 2008 presidential candidate simultaneously mongered and captured American fear. “I’m here to speak to you about a very serious subject, how to make America safe,” he said. “The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe. They fear for their children, they fear for themselves. They fear for our police officers, who are being targeted with a target on their back. It’s time to make America safe again.” And Trump — you guessed it — is the guy do to it. But let’s look at the data.

In describing anxiety among Americans, Giuliani is correct: Pew research indicates that since the early 2000s, every year a majority of Americans surveyed have felt that crime has increased since the year previous. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans think that the crime rate is increasing, up from 63 percent in 2013. But the reality is that America is getting safer. The national crime rate is about half of what it was at the peak in 1991.

What’s tremendously aggravating is that Giuliani, and, in turn, the GOP, speak about making America safe “again.” He said that Trump “will make America, like the president I worked for, Ronald Reagan, once again be the shining City on the Hill.” But here’s the thing: During Reagan’s presidency, which lasted from 1981 to 1989, America was way more dangerous than it is today. In that era, there was an average of 20,377 murders a year in the U.S. There were 14,249 in 2014, the latest year with official FBI data. Meanwhile, the U.S. population has grown from 229 million to 310 million, a 35 percent increase, driving down the per capita rates. There’s also never been a safer time to be a child in America, and while an average of 101 police officers were intentionally killed every year during Reagan’s presidency, the annual number is just 62 under Obama — the lowest recorded amount.

The disconnect astounds. In his crunching of the numbers around Americans’ perception of crime, Pew Research Center founding director Andrew Kohut made the polite academic equivalent of a shruggie: “Why public views on crime have grown more dire is unclear, though many blame it on the nature of news coverage, reality TV, and political rhetoric.” In an email with Science of Us, Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale, who specializes in policing and crime, was more direct, saying that now that crime rates are so low, people have “very little direct experience of crime,” so their perceptions are mainly shaped by news media and entertainment. “Both of these present profoundly inaccurate pictures of the amount of serious crime,” he writes.”The mainstream media continue to live by if it bleeds it leads. I’ve found that if the TV news doesn’t have a horrific local crime story they just pick one up from another city.” Entertainment is just as bad, he says, or worse: Crime dramas continue to captivate, and, according to Vitale, these often feature horrific criminals like serial killers and child abductors. “This creates a constant background noise,” he says, where various crimes are “everywhere and horrific and incomprehensible in nature.” More banal, poverty-driven crime is rarely featured on the news or in broadcast procedurals, he says, aside from ride-along reality-TV crime shows like COPS, which are shot from the “perspective of the always moral and moralizing police officer.” Indeed, separate research indicates that blacks are finally being less overrepresented as the perpetrators of crimes on broadcast news, while Latinos are being overrepresented as undocumented immigrants and Muslims are “greatly overrepresented as terrorists on network and cable news programs.”

This is crucial, since as cultural critic Walter Lippman argued in Public Opinion in 1922, people don’t rely on critical thinking or have ready access to facts to make sense of their world; they lean on the “pictures in their heads,” informed by the media they’re exposed to. The late George Gerbner, who spent a quarter-century studying American culture, called it Mean World Syndrome: Since the average American kid sees an estimated 8,000 murders on TV before they turn 12, they end up primed to think that violence is a regular part of life. It’s an example of what the superstar psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the availability heuristic, whereby people estimate how likely things are to happen based on how frequently they’re exposed to those things or their representations. Since you don’t know the actual statistic, you use a heuristic — a shortcut for thinking — of coming up with an example to guess at the prevalence. So if everything you watch or read is telling you that crime is lurking around you, you might assume that it is — even if the data indicates otherwise.

Updated to add Gerbner and his Mean World Syndrome; hat tip to George Washington University assistant professor Nikki Usher Layser.