It’s kind of difficult to plan where you’re going if you don’t know where your at. That’s increasingly a problem as we become more and more detached about the state the world is in. Our picture of our world is skewed by the press, politicians, social media and frequently, our own brains.
If you get your news only from network and cable news you should be scared to death. We’re bombarded 24/7 with stories of murders, atrocities and terrorist attacks. Most people are convinced that crime is skyrocketing, mass shootings are common, terrorists are hiding around every corner and the world is increasingly at war. The problem is that all of that is wrong.
According to FBI statistics, crime has been falling steadily for the better part of a generation. Between the years 1993 and 2000 the murder rate dropped from 7 homicides per 100,000 people to 3.8 per 100,000. That’s nearly a 50% decrease, and it’s not just homicides. During the same period non-homicides involving guns, such as robberies dropped from 725 per 100,000 people in 1993 to 175 in per 100,000 in 2000. In other words, it fell approximately 75%. Other crimes, assault, domestic abuse, child abuse, thefts, rape have all had similar declines.
It’s not just the U.S. Crime has dropped in virtually every large, industrialized country. Murders in England and Wales dropped 66%. Property crimes in France are down by a third. Homicide rates in Japan haven’t been this low since shortly after World War 2. Nobody is quite sure why. Possible explanations range from demographic shifts to the banning of lead in gasoline, but for whatever reason, crime is down throughout the industrialized world.
On a larger scale, wars are down as well. Both the rate of deaths due to war and the actual number of people dying in battle are down. In 1950, at the start of the Korean War, there were approximately 850,000 battle deaths, according to the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway. By 2008, the number had fallen to less than 50,000. Despite debates over what constitutes a “war” in the modern world, and an uptick in battle deaths due to the war in Syria, it’s pretty clear that wars are claiming fewer lives. According to Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, “There was a slight uptick in 2012, and I expect it will continue to rise a bit in 2013 and 2014 because of Syria and Iraq, but not nearly enough to bring us to the levels seen during the Chinese Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, Iran-Iraq, USSR-Afghanistan, and the many now-quiescent regions of Africa.”
The good news doesn’t stop there. Worldwide, infant and maternal mortality are down, as are deaths due to disease and malnutrition. Combine that with reductions in auto fatalities and other forms of accidental death and this may be safest time in human history. So, if the world is so much safer, then why does everyone think it’s more dangerous? The short answer is that there’s a lot of money to be made by scaring people.
Both print and TV news, along with web-based news outlets work under the adage “If it bleeds it leads.” People tune in to hear about tragedy and violence. Good news is harder to sell. A study of news preferences conducted by Pew Research in 2014 found that people ranked war and terrorism as their highest news priority, followed closely by natural and man made disasters. We create a ready market for scary news and the media is only too willing to cater to it.
Politicians too use fear as a way to bring in voters and get them to the polls. That’s why Donald Trump claimed rapists were illegally pouring in from Mexico and recently tweeted, “Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse. Look what is going on in Chicago and our inner cities. Not good!” It’s absolutely false, but it gets people’s attention. It mobilizes the base. Politicians use the politics of fear because it works.
So, why does it work? Why is fear so effective and why do we keep coming back for more? From an evolutionary point of view, being afraid is a very useful thing. Those who reacted at the first sign of danger were more likely to survive, while those who took the time for a more reasoned response frequently became someone’s lunch. Today there aren’t many things around to eat humans, but our fear response is hard wired. In the absence of actual threats, our brains frequently latch onto any slight threat and blow it out of proportion.
This has a range of negative effects. The stress of being constantly afraid can compromise the immune system and cause long term damage to the heart. More generally, it clouds our judgment. Preoccupation with imagined threats can blind us to the real things. It causes us to act irrationally and allows others to prey upon our fears. If we can set those fears aside, we can make more reasoned decisions about our world. We can celebrate the advances we have made and continue to advance in the future.