John Sides at The Monkey Cage:
Do perceptions meet reality? Gallup says:
“Whether there actually has been an increase in crime this year is hard to substantiate at this point, since official crime statistics for 2009 will not be released until next year. The most recent statistics, for the year 2008, show that crime in the U.S. decreased last year from 2007. Consistent with that change, Gallup’s 2008 measurement also showed a decline in the percentage of Americans perceiving more crime in the United States, from 71% in 2007 to 67% in 2008.”
This misses the most important finding, however. Since 2001, perceptions of crime have become far worse even as the actual crime rate has remained stable. I took FBI’s violent crime rate from 1989-2008 and matched it up as best as possible to Gallup poll numbers for each year (eyeballing the graph above to determine the year in which each poll was conducted).
For 1991-2001, perceptions line up nicely with reality. But in 2002-2008, a larger percentage of Americans perceived an increase in crime than one would expect, given the actual crime rate. It appears that 2009 will only continue this trend. A graph with the property crime rate would show a similar finding.
One can speculate about the reasons. September 11th seems an unlikely cause, especially of the increase since 2005. Local television news consumption affects certain beliefs about crime, according to this research by Frank Gilliam and Shanto Iyengar. But I don’t really think there’s been a massive uptick in local news consumption, or local news coverage of crime (which seems a perennial staple — if it bleeds it leads, etc.).
More Sides with more charts.
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?
Speculating . . . speculating . . . I feel that since the end of the 1990s, crime has really fallen off the map as an official topic of public and political concern. That could mean that people are seeing less reporting of actual facts about the crime rate and coming to be more influenced by the “if it bleeds it leads” phenomenon. But I don’t know how you would test that hypothesis.
He wonders if this is a consequence of the perennial suspicion that 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.” The trouble is: crime always makes the local news. Non-crime almost never does.
Doug J. on that generational thing, responding to Sager:
A friend of mine once pointed out that, while each generation is thought to be dumber than the last, the people of a thousand years ago are thought to be dumber than people today (single digit literacy rates, burning of witches, etc.). So generational intelligence is a function that increases despite being everywhere locally decreasing.