Why Do We Wrongly Believe Crime Is Up?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Americans talk and think a lot about crime, whether we're speculating about the motives of high-profile offenders, debating terrorism trials, or just trying to figure out whether Arnold Schwarzenegger really wants to send prisoners to Mexico. But national crime rates aren't commensurate with our interest; in fact, in 2009 they fell to their lowest point in a generation. So why do we continue to believe that crime rates are climbing?

Joe Keohane of The Boston Globe--armed with an impressive array of stats--considers some answers. One reason Keohane suggests we perceive crime rates as higher than reality is "pessimistic bias"--the tendency to remember the past as a simpler and friendlier time. The media undoubtedly plays a role as well, catering to "a consumer demand for gore and tragedy." But Keohane thinks the issue is larger than that:
If our perception of crime doesn't track actual crime rates, what does it track? One answer is satisfaction with the country. According to Gallup, from 1992 to 2001, respondents' perception of crime fell as their satisfaction with the country rose. After 2001, however, satisfaction with the country has dropped precipitously, from 67 percent in 2001 to 9 percent in 2008, while perception of crime has risen.
Keohane floats some other answers as well. For example, this inflated perception might have something to do with America's rancorous national politics, or with the country's "rapidly changing" demographics. On a local level, at least, people have a "far more accurate sense" of crime levels. So why do many of us see crime on the rise nationally, when in fact it's fallen?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.