Crime Rates: Our Mass Delusion

by Benjamin Studebaker

As unusually highly attentive readers might be aware, I am now a grad student at the University of Chicago. By reputation, Chicago is often thought a comparatively dangerous, unsafe place, and this was the impression most are under upon arrival there. If, however, we actually look at crime statistics, we find that the extent to which people in this area fear crime and perceive it to be an endemic threat is unjustifiable. In this piece, I will establish that claim, and then consider how it has come to pass that the average citizen overestimates the amount of danger he is in so thoroughly and consistently.

It’s fairly easy to get crime data on the area in which I presently live. The Chicago Tribune does a rather thorough job of it. That said, the way in which crime data is presented is, upon reflection, rather odd. We are typically given the number of incidents, or the number of incidents per some unit of population. The former metric makes any amount of crime seem substantial, while the latter metric is not easily conceptualized by the reader. It occurs to me that there is a better way to put crime rates into perspective. Let us making a simplifying assumption that no citizen experiences multiple crimes per year. So if there were 585 thefts in the last year, we assume that 585 people experienced theft. This is, of course, not strictly speaking true–there may be some number of citizens who experienced multiple thefts–but by simplifying in this way, we can offer people a more realistic and informative figure, one that roughly indicates to them the percent chance that they will become victims of crime in the next year.

As an example, I use my present locality, the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago, which has a population of 25,681:


Total Number of Incidents in the Last Year in Hyde Park Percent Chance it Will Happen to the Average Citizen of Hyde Park in a Given Year
Robbery 85 0.3%
Battery 15 0.06%
Assault 18 0.07%
Homicide 2 0.008%
Sexual Assault 12 0.05%
Theft 585 2.3%
Burglary 128 0.5%
Grand Theft Auto 71 0.3%
Arson 1


The risk of crime in my present locality looks much higher when we look at the column on the left than it does if we look at the column on the right. Aside from theft, less than 1 in 100 people (and typically much less than this, particularly in the case of say, homicide) will experience each of the given crimes in a given year. The left column seems to indicate a much worse situation than it does in no small part because people have trouble conceptualizing just how large populations are, and over just how many people those incidents are spread.

Citizens do not merely overestimate their risk of being victims of crime–they also believe rates to be increasing when in fact they are falling. Gallup provides some interesting data. Here is the rate of violent crime in the United States from 1973:

And here is what Americans think is happening to the national crime rate:

Crime rates began to fall fast after 1994, but citizens only briefly became aware that crime rates were falling in the early 00’s, and they very swiftly lost that awareness even as rates continued to fall. What’s more, citizens were not merely mistaken about the national trend–they even get their own local trends wrong, albeit less severely:

Amazingly, some federal bureaucrat looking at a graph likely has a better understanding of the level of crime in a given area than the average citizen who lives there. There are many dangerous implications of this level of misinformation. Citizens are more likely to vote for candidates and parties that will support “tough on crime” policies if they drastically overestimate their risk of falling victim to crime and wrongly believe that risk is rising. This leads to an inefficient allocation of resources. We spend tax money on policing and imprisoning on the basis of a wildly inaccurate understanding of the need for both. We also ignore other more pressing issues and concerns when we elect individuals who prioritize crime.

How does it come to pass that citizens have this overwhelmingly flawed view? Earlier, I pointed to the way in which the statistics are presented–too often, we get raw numbers of incidents instead of risk percentages that help us to contextualize the figures in our high-population societies. But the problem runs even deeper than this. Most of the information the average citizen receives about crime is not statistical but anecdotal. Local news programs spend substantial portions of their air time covering individual crimes, particularly shootings. There are a wide array of examples. By covering anecdotal cases with this level of detail, news programs rob them of their statistical context. If every day one sits down to watch the news and every day one hears of several different awful crimes, the coverage of which occupies a large portion of the program’s time slot, one is easily led over an extended time frame to believe that these incidents are widespread and/or becoming more common.

We justify anecdotal coverage of individual crimes on the grounds that citizens should be made aware when these terrible things happen, but, counter intuitively, by informing them about particular incidents, we disinform them about generalities. Citizens would have a more accurate understanding of the truth in this area if news organizations never reported on individual criminal incidents at all, but instead supplied citizens exclusively with crime statistics. These statistics should indicate trends in the amount of crime and offer risk percentages rather than raw aggregate figures.

Unfortunately, news organizations are not likely to change the way they report on crime first and foremost because viewers are entertained by stories about individual crimes. They want to click on, watch, read about, and otherwise consume such stories. In this way, viewers and readers cause themselves to be ultimately more poorly informed. Private news organizations are consequently under a strong incentive to continue to cover crime in the way they presently do. Indeed, I expect that the only way we could ensure citizens better understood crime would be for the state to step in and regulate media coverage of the issue, which carries with it a whole new basket of problems. What of freedom of the press, or free speech? This puts us in a very uncomfortable and seemingly inescapable position in which citizens are entertained by programming that makes them worse voters, so private media outlets indulge them and make them worse voters in order to maintain their own viewership, while the state has to do nothing so as to avoid exercising a tyrannical influence over private media outlets. The media cannot be blamed, because if individual outlets choose not to supply the public what it wants, they will go elsewhere. The state cannot be blamed, because it’s trying to protect freedom of the press. Can citizens really be blamed for finding crime stories entertaining? It may merely be in their nature to do so. Yet by their nature they are nonetheless themselves undone.