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Posted by on Nov 20, 2015 in Featured, Society | 49 comments

Is the world as frightening a place as media portray?

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)