Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Crime and the perception of acceleration

One thing about the British is they like to whine. I'm not talking about every individual here, but as a collective society, Britain is always going on about how terrible things have become, especially when it comes to crime. In reality, a glance at any per capita crime statistic will show you that Britain is a far, far safer place to live than the U.S. of A. (and most of the rest of the world too, for that matter).

Take the murder rate, for example: For every 1000 people in the UK, there were 0.0141 murders last year. For the U.S., the figure is 0.0428 -- meaning you are about 3 times less likely to be murdered in the U.K. Even more dramatic is murder by youths, which seems to be the dreaded fate that the Brits most obsess about these days ("Oh, what's to be done about the yoofs"): the U.S. per capita rate is more than twelve times that of the U.K. To be fair, the U.K. stacks up a little more evenly for rape, but even there the U.S. rate is still more than double.

And yet, far fewer British citizens (a mere 70%, compared to 82% in the States) say they feel safe walking in the dark. (Personally, I prefer to have some sort of flashlight/torch so I don't trip on something, but I don't think that's quite what they meant.) So are my UK co-residents just worrywarts?

My hunch is that as humans we tend to put a lot more emphasis on perceptions of acceleration than on velocity, and when it comes to safety, we confuse the two. Thus, when someone says "the streets aren't safe any more", his or her only basis for comparison is how safe the streets were, say, 5 years ago. If they're less safe now, it's how much less safe they are that matters, not some absolute measure of safety. So if there is a perception that violent crime is going up across the U.K. -- if only by 10% in those 5 years (just making numbers up), that becomes far more significant than the fact that very little plus 10 percent is still a whole heck of a lot less than what you might find on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

Now, none of this really explains why your average American thinks his/her street is the safest in the world to go prancing up and down on a new moon, when it quite clearly is not. But maybe they just think it's not getting worse.


At 27 March 2008 02:30 , Blogger Cellar Door said...

I've always felt fine walking around America at night, a woman, alone, even.

I used to be terrified, however, in Sweden- not of crime, but of ghosts. My first week there (at age seventeen), someone showed me the "beds" in the barn out back, where they kept the bodies of people who died during the winter, because the ground was frozen too solid to bury them. That did it for me! I was perpetually terrified of zombies and ghosts and, just the very idea of the house I lived in being 300 years old- that scared the crap out of me. The fact that it was basically dark for three months straight didn't help, either!

So, I guess it had something to do with the relativism: relative to Northern California, Northern Sweden had a lot more spook vibe!


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