Drawing the Murder Rate

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, we asked readers to draw their best guess of how the U.S. murder rate changed between 1985 and 2014. More than 11,000 of you participated. Here’s the result, with bright red indicating the areas with the most guesses:

On the whole, most people drew a downward-trending line. But the hive mind’s guesses grew further dispersed as they drew closer to the current day, with more than a few people guessing the crime rate hit zero in 2014. On the other hand, only around 50 people thought crime had doubled over the intervening 30 years.

Here’s the same graph with the actual crime rate added in white:

Many folks missed the fact that crime rose in the early ’90s, drawing a reasonably flat line through the term of George H.W. Bush and the first four Clinton years. And more people thought crime was lower in 2014 than it actually was, rather than higher.

Our experiment tried to give as few cues as possible: the starting point was centered vertically in the chart, and there were no guides directing the user in a certain direction. It appears most readers are knowledge of crime trends, are optimists, or both. Despite the dramatic headlines of the past year, the majority of people correctly determined that crime has fallen over the past few decades.