Our memories are lousy, as mounting evidence against eyewitness testimony details.

We’re subject to memory biases. Add other cognitive biases, like confirmation bias, and it’s clear that our brains tend to whimsy more than fact.

Then there’s the frequency illusion (Baader-Meinhof phenomenon). That’s when you become aware of something new — or, maybe, decide to buy a new car — and then you see that thing (or other folks driving around in the car in question) everywhere. It’s not that the universe is speaking to you — it’s that the pattern-matching part of your brain has kicked into gear.

This prelude is to prepare you for something that may feel discordant:

Our world is, on the whole, getting safer. Decade, after decade.

That’s not the picture broadcast on the evening news or 24×7 cable news, headlined in newspapers, or spouting from the mouths of politicians.

I have two pieces of evidence.

First, the violent crime rate in the United States, from 1983-2014.

Violent crime rate, U.S.

These are FBI data. If there is a way to go further back in time for data, I haven’t found it.

The chart is presented as a counter-point to headlines from this summer:

In response to news reports like these, this week the Brennan Center for Justice released an analysis of 2015 crime data. Their conclusion:

Crime overall in 2015 is expected to be largely unchanged from last year, decreasing 1.5 percent.

In addition to providing zero context, those headlines are chock-full of emotional words that frame both our reaction and recall: “crime wave”, “surge” and “sharply”.

Here’s what I mean. Research conducted by Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California Irvine, shows how labels — language — frame memory.

In her research into eyewitness accounts, she played videos of car accidents and then asked people what they remembered. When she asked how fast the cars were going when they “smashed” into each other, people thought the cars were going faster than when she used the verb “hit”. Statistically significantly different. She asked the testers a week later about the accident. Those who heard it described as “smashed” remembered seeing broken glass, even though there was none in the film.

In a subsequent study she asked people if they saw “a broken headlight” or “the broken headlight.” Those who were asked about “the” broken headlight were more likely to remember seeing it, though it never existed.

A verbal label — in my example, the emotionally-charged words in the headline — can influence our memory. And if we see the headline repeated ad nauseam — not just in traditional media but in our digital social networks — our brains will adopt the “frequency illusion” unless we consciously reel them back.

Second, terrorist attacks in western Europe, 1970-2015.

Terrorist attacks in Western Europe

The chart is from Datagraver, a Dutch company. The data come from the University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database.

The GTD defines a terrorist attack as the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.

The researchers classify an event as a terrorist attack if it meets these three criteria: it’s intentional, it entails violence or the threat of violence (kidnapping, hostages), and the perpetrator does not represent the state.

At least two of these three factors must be present:

  1. There is a political, economic, religious, or social goal
  2. Evidence of an intention to coerce, intimidate, or convey some other message to a larger audience than the victims
  3. It occurs outside the context of legitimate warfare activities

Most brutal acts of aggression designed to foment fear do not take place in western countries. In 2014, more than 60% of all attacks took place in five countries (Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria), and 78% of all fatalities occurred in five countries (Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria).

Since 2006, there have been about 300 people killed in western Europe from terrorist attacks.

Since 2006, there have been more than 800 people killed by people with guns committing mass killings (four or more killed in one incident) in the United States. But western Europe has the larger total population.

USA Today - mass killings

The actual risk of being part of a mass killing is low: they account for only about 1% of all murders. And murder is low risk: there were only 4.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2014.

Whether it’s the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality or the lucrative nature of gore (with eyeballs comes ad money), traditional and new media do not shine a light on all crime nor do they, as a matter of practice, put risk in context.

Sensational is what leads. Sensational is what gets shared on Facebook. And sensational — emotional appeal — is what gets people elected to public office.

… in America, there may be no greater, more powerful idol than Security. (source)

“Safety” — a first cousin to Security — is an illusion. There is a risk when rolling out of bed in the morning.

“Security is a kind of death.”
— Tennessee Williams
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
— Helen Keller
“In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.”
— Abraham Maslow
“There is no greater illusion than fear, no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself, no greater misfortune than having an enemy. Whoever can see through all fear will always be safe.”
— Lao Tzu

The purpose of random acts of violence is disruption and fear. Both are used opportunistically by politicians. This is a plea to resist the post-Paris political rhetoric, rhetoric designed to exploit fear and paint security with a rosy brush.

The race for the Republican nomination for the White House took a new turn in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks on Thursday as the front-runner, Donald Trump, called for a database to track Muslims living in the United States, while his closest rival, Ben Carson, suggested refugees of the Syrian conflict should be screened as they might be “rabid dogs”.

The facts run counter to the insanity.

No US refugees have been terrorists.

Now’s the time to be conscious of how our brains work.

Awareness not only leads to change, it leads to understanding. We can resist the pull of false promises of security, but only if we put our minds to it.

Update: note, I am talking specifically about “our” world, the USA and to an extent our western allies. Certainly I am not talking about Syria or Iraq or Africa — many places where a U.S. footprint is embedded alongside extreme violence.

Update 2: from the comments: The world is getting safer, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel like it (2014).

Update 3

According to a major 2011 study by Harvard University’s Steven Pinker, violence of all kinds has been declining for thousands of years. Indeed Pinker claims that, “we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence.” (source)

KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
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Copyright 2015 The Moderate Voice
  • shaun

    The brain is an amazing but tricky thing, and its ability to tell us that it is stormy when the sun is out can be pernicious. This is a really smart and necessary post. Thank you.

  • shannonlee

    amazing how the legalizing of abortion had such a drastic effect on crime rates….

    there is a difference now … ISIS is not your average terror organization and we are just at the beginning of a new age of social media inspired terrorism. I think things for Europe are going to get worse and things for the US will remain unchanged.

    • The worst hit places in the world … have our footprints. 🙁

      On a separate note, I don’t know that the violent crime rate statistics are related to abortion. The trend was “down” even before 1983, according to historians.

      The bulge — ’83-’90 — comes in the Reagan-Bush era, which is long past Roe v Wade. But I couldn’t find where the FBI hides prior data on its website. Welcome help if anyone else can find it. 🙂

      • shannonlee

        I watched a nice documentary showing that the reduction in crime that we have seen can be 30% attributed to Roe v Wade… way off topic 🙂
        The docu was more about crime in general and crime fighting policy… the prison industry complex … and of course politics.

        • Discredited. And this is from FOX. In 2008

          “a thorough analysis of abortion and crime statistics leads to the opposite conclusion: that abortion increases crime.”

          “Unfortunately for those who argue that abortion reduces crime, Donahue and Levitt’s research suffered from methodological flaws. As The Economist noted, “Donohue and Levitt did not run the test that they thought they had.” Work by two economists at the Boston Federal Reserve, Christopher Foote and Christopher Goetz, found that, when the test was run correctly, it indicated that abortion actually increases violent crime. John Whitley and I had written an earlier study that found a similar connection between abortion and murder — namely, that legalizing abortion raised the murder rate, on average, by about 7 percent.”

          http://www.foxnews.com/story/2008/07/07/myth-about-abortion-and-crime.html

          • shannonlee

            thanks for the info….

            here is what I found on wiki

            Donohue and Levitt subsequently published a response to the Foote and Goetz paper.[9]
            The response acknowledged the mistake, but showed that with different
            methodology, the effect of legalized abortion on crime rates still
            existed. Foote and Goetz, however, soon produced a rebuttal of their own
            and showed that even after analyzing the data using the methods that
            Levitt and Donohue recommend, the data does not show a positive
            correlation between abortion rates and crime rates.[10]
            They are quick to point out that this does not necessarily disprove
            Levitt’s thesis, however, and emphasize that with data this messy and
            incomplete, it is in all likelihood not even possible to prove or
            disprove Donohue and Levitt’s conclusion.

            always good to get different view points.

          • Recommend reading the actual rebuttal to the 2001 study (clearly sloppy research, given it was published with coding errors and it failed to use per capita data). This is the 2008 rebuttal written after original author response > http://www.bostonfed.org/economic/wp/wp2005/wp0515.pdf

          • “First, we show that state-level abortion and crime rates were strongly correlated before 1985, when it was impossible for abortion to have had a causal effect on
            crime.

            “We then show that accounting for this correlation has damaging consequences for the abortion coefficient in the cross-state regressions that DL use to quantify abortion’s effect on crime.

            “In fact, the abortion coefficients in these cross-state regressions are no longer significantly different from zero when a potential proxy for omitted state-year factors is
            added.

            “Finally, Section 4 concludes with a test that is robust to many of the econometric issues we discuss throughout this comment. This test also provides no evidence that
            abortion reduces crime.”

          • NOTE: Levitt is from the University of Chicago. Home of Milton Friedman > which gave us the economics of Reagan and Thatcher … and which we are still “paying for” as a society.

            Image source:

            http://www.businessinsider.com/federal-debt-as-a-percent-of-gdp-by-president-2010-5

          • Also, recommend reading the Economist rebuttal, Oops-onomics, in full > http://www.economist.com/node/5246700

            NOTE: TheEconomist is not a “liberal” publication.

          • “Ted Joyce, a professor at Baruch College (part of the City University of New York), who has had his own methodological disagreements with Messrs Donohue and Levitt, also thinks the debate is stretching the data too far. He points out that if you add controls for 50 states and 12 years—as Messrs Foote and Goetz do, and as Messrs Donohue and Levitt meant to do—you are, in effect, holding another 600 things constant. This robs the data of most of their variety, and of much of their ability to explain anything.”

          • “for someone of Mr Levitt’s iconoclasm and ingenuity, technical ineptitude is a much graver charge than moral turpitude. To be politically incorrect is one thing; to be simply incorrect quite another.”

  • I could just imagine Fox taking the graph on deaths by terrorist attack and limit it to 2014 and 2015 to show a really scary trend without historical context.

    • Not just FOX. That’s basically what the NYT, CNN and PBS did this summer with murder. 🙁

  • I feel safe here in the US and in the suburb of Portland, OR where I live – hell I don’t even lock my door if I’m not going to be gone long. But there are certainly places I would not travel outside the US. There has been an uptick in gang related gun violence in Portland itself this year but in areas I probably wouldn’t go anyway but even that is mostly gang on gang violence with an occasional innocent victim being hit by a stray bullet. Out here in the suburbs it’s mostly domestic violence.

    • Ron, check out the Brennan study released yesterday. It puts the “uptick in murder” stories from the summer into context.

  • tnlib

    Sharing everywhere I can, including the Facebook pages of fear mongering politicians – not that their fans will pay much, if any, attention. The “new media” is even worse than the mainstream media , I think, when it comes to hyperbole and sensationalism. Thank you.

    • Thanks for sharing.

      • SteveK

        I’m sharing your link too. And you’ll probably see (hear?) from my right leaning friends and relatives.

        But not to worry they’re great people despite their misguided POV’s… Which is pretty much what they think of me. ?

        Super article Kathy, thank you. I hope it gets the exposure it deserves.

  • DdW

    Eye-opening statistics, Kathy.

    Just want to add, from the June 24, 2015, New York TYimes:

    But the breakdown of extremist ideologies behind those
    attacks may come as a surprise. Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.

    And we are not even including Oklahoma City, et al.

    • Thanks, DdW. There are such good data like yours on murder in the US … that don’t break through the most common cognitive bias: surrounding ourselves with information/viewpoints/people that reinforce, rather than challenge, our worldview.

  • tidbits

    This is one of the best articles to appear here in a very, very long time. Intelligent, factually supported and fundamentally germane to the current and broader political and social discussions afoot in our society. Thank you, Kathy!

    • Thank you very much, tidbits! I’ve not written, erh, publlished, as much in NaNoWriMo as I had hoped when the month began. I seem reluctant to write the “quick” piece — either things have to stew or I have to get so frustrated that I’m about to bust. Not sure which.

  • dduck12

    My wife doen’t want to go to the LIRR station during Thanksgiving. Won’t go to Macy’s. Doesn’t like to take the subway, especially under the East River, or the Hudson to NJ. Other than that, we are free as birds to, whoops, forgot about The Main Library and Museums.

  • Slamfu

    Lets face it, there isn’t a lot of money, power, or votes to be had in telling everyone that things are ok. Great article, and I wish it would make the rounds in the major media outlets.

    • Thanks, Slamfu. I need to write an abridged version for HuffPo…

  • IndyGuy

    And now I hear the same fear being generated by the GOP. And what’s really frustrating is that they may in fact scare the American public so much they’ll vote for war!

    • dduck12

      And/or Hillary. 🙂

  • rudi

    The number of deaths in armed conflicts is at a low point. But pundits and newscasters get ratings spreading fear over a “dangerous” world.

    http://www.hsrgroup.org/our-work/security-stats/state-based-battle-deaths-year-million-population.aspx
    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/globally-deaths-war-and-murder-are-decline-180950237/?no-ist

    • Thank you, Rudi, for more evidence.

    • Sal Monela

      Spreading fear is a common element in a newscast. The old saying “if it bleeds it leads” now has been replaced by “if it scares it blares.” If I had a $ for every story that seeks to frighten the masses, I’d probably be part of the 1%.

      • I had not heard that revision … Ugh. TY.

  • rudi

    Here’s a jpg from the first link.

    • Sigh. For the US …. is that bump from 59-62ish Korea? Clearly the last 60s-early 70s is Vietnam. The 80s is Iraq, BushTheElder.

  • dduck12

    Of course the fact that Belgium just raised its Terror Threat Level to the highest ever doesn’t help calm things down, and, oh, there was the attack in Mali (a former French colony).

    • Yes, I saw the attack in Mali — well, first it was hostages and then an attack. 🙁

  • I’ve had a lot to do with probability and statistics over the years.

    On 9/11, several people we knew were in the WTC; two guys from our neighborhood were killed in the Pentagon. I’d been in both places a number of times before that date. The gas station we use in Manassas was the site of one of the Beltway Snipers’ killings; the police station down the street from my wife’s office had three officers shot, one fatally, by a crazed gunman. It never even crossed my mind that I or any of my family or friends were in danger from those kinds of things.

    In the same way, when close friends of ours won $2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery, I wasn’t tempted to buy a ticket. Gambling doesn’t interest me, and terrorists don’t terrify me. On the other hand, I get excited reading about neutrinos and space elevators, so my life isn’t completely bland.

    • dduck12

      Same here. I worked in a building where a USSR office of some kind was located a few floors up, felt that one: explosion 1. We live a block away from the Cuban Embassy, and heard explosions 2 and 3. We didn’t feel the 9/11 attack explosions (too far away), but we saw the dust covered people walking past our building and we lost at least one tenant who I knew from the gym.
      A big, there have been many smaller ones, Con Edison explosion was enormously loud and the steam escaping made a terrible noise two blocks away, etc,etc. Daily life in NYC.

      • explosion 1

        Ah, bombs. The first time I flew to London I walked out of Terminal 2 and an IRA car bomb went off in the carpark about 100 meters away. Not a sound you want to hear at an airport. On another trip they bombed a pub a block over from the bookstore I was in — loud CRUMP! A few weeks later I was in the food hall at Harrods when they received a bomb threat. No actual bomb, but a massive explosion of politeness: they got everybody out of the store in about ten minutes, no panic, no rushing, just soft, murmured requests to move right along.

        (For those who don’t know, Harrods is a million square foot department store on a 5-acre lot in Knightsbridge. Marks & Sparks it’s not.)

  • KP

    <>

    Global warming is the number one threat to humans (period).

    So yes, this is the most frightening time ever for humans.

    If some pretend that violence is the threat issue we should focus on, then no, this is a safe period for man.

    Until a nuke goes off in your city.

    • dduck12

      Right on, whoops, I mean yea. This is nothing right now compared to the threat from the USSR.

    • Global warming is the number one threat to humans (period).

      I don’t know. Evolution of a strain of bacteria that are resistant to all known antibiotics could wipe us out much more quickly, and may be closer to happening.

      • KP

        I agree with you.

        I was teasing these guys:

        Bernie Sanders: “Climate change is the greatest threat facing the U.S. today”.

        Obama: “Climate Change” as the greatest threat to national security”.