In general, I am very interested in our misperceptions. We constantly go about making judgments of the world, making decisions, and developing a general sense of how the world operates based on what we pay close attention to, what we hear on a regular basis, and all the information that makes its way into our orbit. But there is only so much that we can pay close attention to and various factors will influence what information comes our way. This means that our perceptions of the world are subject to bias and noise. We may be very interested in one topic and become an expert in that narrow topic. A co-worker may constantly talk about a subject they are fascinated by, so we may pick up certain ideas from their conversations. Newspaper headlines may shape the way we think about certain topics, even if we never read the whole story.
Violence is one such area where we may have misperceptions of reality due to bias and noise. News stories are biased toward the exciting and unusual events that take place. No one wants to listen to a story about how an improved traffic calming near a school reduced car collisions and improved pedestrian safety. News outlets know this and instead cover the instances when there is a traffic accident in a school zone. Social media channels are similarly fueled by the surprising and emotional things that people have to share. Once again, people are likely to react more strongly to a story about a robbery at a shopping center near a school than a story about how improved lighting and a night time security guard at the shopping center reduced crime in the area by 10%. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “no matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.”
Misperceptions of violence, along with other misperceptions about the world, matter. People make decisions about public policy, make personal choices, and interact with each others in society in different based on their perceptions. Thinking of violence specifically, we make different decisions about where to invest government funds, how long to incarcerate criminals, and how many police officers to hire depending on our perceptions of crime. We chose which schools to send our kids to, where to go out for dinner, and where to live based whether we think violence is prevelent in a given area. We shop at certain businesses, smile at or look away from strangers, and exercise indoors our outside to some degree depending on our perceptions of violence relative to safety. Misperceptions in these areas can lead to discrimination, inequality, over- and under-policing, and over- and under-investment. Failing to accurately understand levels of violence can have real world consequences that can lead to wasted and misallocated resources and unfair treatment for some communities, particularly in societies with long histories of racial or economic injustice.
We pay attention to the flashing lights of police vehicles, remember news stories about gruesome murders, and react strongly to stories of violence on social media – thereby boosting the visibility of those stories – and as a result we feel like we are living in a dangerous world. We don’t remember all the times a family member went running at 6 in the morning and didn’t get mugged. We don’t remember all the daily commutes to work without seeing a police chase, we don’t remember the days where the national news and our social media channels were not dominated by stories of violent crime. We perceive that the world is getting less safe, that crimes are increasing, and that we must take steps to better secure ourselves and our property. However, this is a misperception. Despite fluctuations from year to year (I will note that crime rates have increased since 2020, however it is unclear if this is a new trend or random fluctuation) humanity world wide has become less violent and has been trending toward reduced violence for a very, very long time. In The Better Angels of Our Nature Pinker argues that we would experience a different world if our perceptions of violence matched reality.