Thursday, January 24, 2008

Declining Violence

It is often stated that people's behavior is growing worse and worse over time. A possible implication of this claim is that the collective rottenness of the human race absolves the speaker of the responsibility to work towards positive change, but we don't hear that very often, do we? So, is it really true that Americans are becoming increasingly violent? Statistics from the Department of Justice answer with a resounding no. There has been an especially sharp decline in violent crimes since the early 1990s. The murder rate is currently approaching levels not seen since the middle of the last century.
As an example of these trends, the murder rate of New York City is currently at its lowest point since reliable records began being taken. Contributing factors for this perception of increasing violence may be availability bias, the tendency to assign a high probability to events that one remembers occurring. In the not-too-distant past, there were only a handful of major television networks broadcasting news less than two hours per day. There are currently many television channels carrying news broadcasts, and some are dedicated, 24/7 news channels. Even local news broadcasts are longer, requiring more crime reports to fill the time. This does not even take into account similar material available online. Also, during the period from the early 1940's to the early 1960's, the time that the populous baby boomer generation was being born and raised, the murder rate seems to have been slightly lower than today. For a significant portion of their adult lives, baby boomers did indeed observe increased crime, and many are not yet aware that these trends have reversed dramatically. The uptick in crime during the 1960's seems to have been a local anomaly. Steven Pinker has presented a case that violence has been in decline for thousands of years. I do not argue that we should simply congratulate ourselves and resign to the many injustices that still persist. We obviously must continue making progress. In my view, we should not regard violence in our society as a measure of how much we have degenerated, but as behavior incongruent with the kind of society we wish to be.

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