Public Ignorance About Crime Rates

CNN recently published an interesting article about how most of the public believes that violent crime is rising, despite the fact that it has actually fallen dramatically over the last twenty years:

You can’t escape the headlines. An Australian going to college in the United States is gunned down by teens who police say killed him out of boredom. A few days later, a World War II veteran is beaten to death for reasons still unknown….

Although the cases have struck a nerve with their disturbing randomness and apparent cruelty, the reality is that living in the United States may never have been safer, and you’re much more likely to be the victim of a crime committed by someone you know than you are to be assaulted by a stranger.

Nearly eight of every 10 murders in the United States between 1993 and 2008 were committed by someone the victim knew, according a 2010 report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics….

Pair that with figures on overall crime: According to the FBI, the violent crime rate in the United States is about half what it was in 1992.

And between 1992 and 2011, the annual number of murders in the United States fell from 23,760 to 14,612 despite a growing population.

Rape, robbery, assault, even property crimes also fell in a well-documented decline that has gone on for years….

But perceptions of crime haven’t always followed the reality.

In May, a Pew Research Center study found that 56% of Americans believe that gun violence is higher than it was 20 year ago, even though it has fallen precipitously since the 1990s.

And in 2011, Gallup found that 68% of Americans believed crime was getting worse, despite the reality of declining crime rates nationwide.

Public overestimation of the crime rate can influence policy. On the right, people who believe that crime is worse than it actually is are probably more likely to support an aggressive War on Drugs, and to tolerate the massive militarization of the police that has arisen over the last thirty to forty years. On the left, inaccurate perceptions that gun crime is going up help fuel calls for stringent gun control measures.

I. Causes of Public Ignorance About Crime Rates.

Why is public opinion on crime rates so inaccurate? It would be easy to blame a sensationalist media that trumpets atypical cases like the recent crimes noted in the CNN article and implicitly suggests that they are the norm rather than the exception. Yet accurate reports about crime trends are not hard to find in both the media and other readily available sources. The CNN article is itself an example of such. A logical voter reading a sensationalistic crime story should ask himself whether the event described is at all typical before drawing conclusions about policy. A few minutes of googling could probably lead him to the right answer.

Unfortunately, however, most voters have little incentive to either acquire accurate information about crime policy, or rationally evaluate the information they do know, such as sensationalist media accounts of individual crimes. Because the chance of casting a decisive vote in an election is so extremely low, this kind of ignorance about crime is actually rational behavior, if the only purpose of seeking out the truth is to become a better-informed voter. For ideologically committed “political fans,” it is actually emotionally satisfying to interpret sensationalistic media stories as evidence of rising crime rates that (for the right) demonstrate the need for aggressive law enforcement or (for the left) the need for stronger gun control.

II. Why Public Opinion is Less Ignorant About Local Crime Trends than National Ones.

Interestingly, Gallup poll data on crime reveals that people have more accurate perceptions of local crime rates than national ones. In a 2011 survey, only 11 percent said that crime is an “extremely” or “very” serious problem in “the area where [they] live” compared to 54% who believed that it was in the United States as a whole. Similarly, throughout the 2000s (when crime was falling in most years), only about 40-50% believed that it was rising in their local communities, compared to 60-75% who believed that it was rising in the US as a whole. While people still seem to overestimate local crime rates, they overestimate nationwide crime much more.

That is likely because people have reasons to become knowledgeable about local crime that go beyond casting better-informed voters in elections. If you overestimate local crime rates, you might take wasteful precautions that make your daily life unnecessarily difficult. If you underestimate it, you take the risk of being robbed, mugged, or murdered. Mistakes of either type might also lead you to take up residence in the wrong jurisdiction (either mistakenly passing up a desirable low-crime area, or mistakenly settling in an area where crime is higher than you think). By contrast, if you have inaccurate perceptions of national crime rates, the worst that will happen is that you will vote the wrong way in an election where your mistake has only an infinitesmal chance of making a difference. This is yet another example of how people have better incentives to acquire information and evaluate it rationally when they “vote with their feet” than when they do so at the ballot box.