Pessimism and fear

I have a shocking statistic for you about crime in America. Ask anyone and they will tell you that our country has gotten more dangerous, with violence all around us. We hear it on all the news outlets, and even our entertainment in movies and television reflects this.

Except that it is completely false. The crime rate today is about half what it was in the early 1990s. Crime did rise from the 1960s into the 1990s but has been falling steadily ever since. In the span of a generation, our level of crime has dropped by half.

The last time serious crime was at the level it is today, gas was 29 cents per gallon and the average American income was $5,807. It was 1963.

Remember those scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when the flawless Audrey Hepburn is walking around New York City by herself at night or early morning? You couldn’t possibly do that today! Yet crime levels are about the same now as then.

Still, as the country has become safer, the more we perceive our surroundings as increasingly unsafe. Why the paradox?

First we should talk about some theories as to why actual crime has fallen. Technology plays a part, such as security lights and cameras, as well as the prevalence of cell phones. Also, the overall population is aging, and crimes are more commonly committed by young people.

So where do we get this idea of doom and gloom if the actual statistics say otherwise?

Sociologists have a term called pessimistic bias, which is a pervasive mindset that believes not only that things are worse than they are, but that they are worse than they used to be. There seems to be a human tendency to glorify the good old days. The era of the golden past naturally changes, depending on the age of the person you ask.

There is another psychological phenomenon in which negativity tends to stick more in your brain. You’ve probably experienced it yourself; you may get nine compliments in a day and only one criticism, but that is what will remain at the forefront of your mind.

This is where media come in. Seeing even one piece of bad news will lodge it in your head. The effect increases exponentially when you consider the penchant for reporting negative events in a sensationalist manner. We live in a culture of fear mongering. No wonder we’re freaked out.

Combine this with the continuous deluge into our awareness through 24-hour news channels, phone alerts, and the Internet, particularly social media. This also goes for what we call entertainment, in the form of TV shows, movies, and video games that depict violence at far higher rates than what actually occurs in real life.

The more media you consume, the more you will perceive the world as scarier, meaner, and less safe than it actually is. Worry, fear, suspicion, and paranoia will become part of you, and will severely limit both your daily life as well as your world view.

This is why we have such outrageous things today as parents getting into trouble for letting their children play outside in the park unsupervised. One theory I read as to why our houses are so much bigger today is that back in the 1950s kids played outside; now the house has to be bigger to accommodate them being kept continuously indoors.

Obviously any crime is unacceptable, and we need to take reasonable precautions to keep ourselves and our communities safe. Then get the facts so you won’t live on constant high alert.

Stephanie Haines is a writer from Greenfield who now lives in Bloomington. She can be contacted through her website, www.stephaniehaines.com.