Human beings aren't very good at listening

The crime rate in Oregon is down, but most Oregonians feel that the rate has gone up, and that they are less safe. I think this story has some interesting parallels with a recent British Medical Journal editorial on cognitive bias, and why what we hear and remember is often very different from the facts we are told. I highly recommend reading both these links together.


  1. Human beings also not very good at: reading, seeing — really, anything requiring even the slightest sort of interpretation — and, perhaps most importantly, remembering/recalling.

    In short: your brain lies to you constantly, about both significant and insignificant things.

    1. Yep, it is mostly able to handle foraging and mating. Anything beyond that seems to have been one hell of a mutation.

  2. I’m pretty sure you can write the same crime rate story for any other place in the US. I mean, watch any local news show and you’d think it was all pandemonium and sheer lawlessness running wild in the streets. It’s no wonder people think the rate has gone up.

    1. Was going to say the same. The homicide rate here has declined for 20+ years, but you wouldn’t know it from the news, or n00b transplants to the city.

  3. Our brain is built to quickly sift/sort and react, though we can and do use it to process information, those interpretations are still informed by the baser instincts and burned in memories. Those memories aren’t even burnt in vividly, they are just silhouettes — the darkest marks of which are left by how we “felt” about the memory.

    Process anything long enough, and you will have been on both sides of an argument, because stack of facts are tinged with opinion, perception, value, etc.

    One of the deepest grooves cut is awareness/aversion to danger, so when presented with comparably researched positive and negative interpretations, we often assume the negative to be true “just in case” because it’s the surer way to avoid the danger.

    Or in the case of political agendas, we tend to side with the stack of facts that are tinged with the opinions, perceptions, values and priority we share most with the group presenting. That’s how an election can go from being about a war and economy to gay marriage and abortion.

  4. We tend to believe what we want to believe, and it takes far more factual information and experience to change a mind than it does to affirm it.

  5. Well, aren’t there some other factors to consider here?

    Didn’t BoingBoing run the story about the Village Voice story about the NYC cop who’d recorded his precinct superiors telling them to convince victims to not report crimes so that their crime rates looked better?

    Like Thorzdad said, but also: as newspapers and television news consolidated, moving from locally-owned operations to massive national corporations, they’ve shifted to a much more profit-driven attitude that sensationalizes events.

    As newspapers have abdicated their partial role in building a sense of community, so too has the internet become a form of social media. We now know, in real time, all the vagaries of fate our friends and family may be subjected to; if someone we know has their property damaged, has their belongings stolen, or their health threatened, we know almost instantly. “My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it’s pretty serious….”

    And the study’s author admits some of these possibilities: “Renauer wanted to include such questions in the PSU study, but they were axed when the survey grew so long it verged on cumbersome, he said.”

  6. Being from Santa Barbara, CA I could honestly agree that theres a chance the true crime rate is not being reported. Santa Barbara is a very rich and small town. They keep as many things uncovered as they possably can. Countless times I’ve seen/heard things that should apper in the news or police blotters but they don’t. Out of the 5 calls into the police only 2 will be taken care of anyways. There are MANY factors in this problem and I doub’t we will ever be aware of any of them.

  7. Similarly, taxes fell in the past two years, but everyone believes they went up.

    People assume they know what direction something is going to trend in, and it takes an awful lot of facts and, especially, time, to disabuse them of their beliefs. People think Democrats raise taxes. People think crime always goes up.

    It’s why organizations like Fox News can spread misinformation so easily — they always spread exactly what their base is already primed to believe.

  8. Contemporary “educated people spend large amounts of time dealing with abstractions.Hardly surprising that they react to abstractions that aren’t grounded in physical reality. A pertinent question is wether the amount of violence and crime they consume in media have gone up . Anther factor is that crime hasn;t gon eup ,but it’s become more randomized-it doesn’t just happen on the wrong side of the tracks.

  9. Can’t recall the source of the quote, but recently read “we discovered that not only is it possible to create a state of despair, it’s politically viable.”

    There’s only one way to fight against the relentless distortion of risk frequencies and magnitudes.

    We must find a way to associate the really urgent issues with great tits.

  10. On the contrary: human beings listen very well. The problem is with what they are listening to.

    Local TV news follows the motto “If it bleeds, it leads.” They sell fear and worry to get people to tune in. Politicians of various stripes sell fear of terrorism and crime to justify draconian policies, and school bureaucrats trying to cover their asses justify draconian “zero tolerance” policies that treat young children like dangerous criminals.

    But despite the fact that Republicans and their allies on cable TV and talk radio have been running on fear for the last decade, political bias in the media probably plays less of a role here than a bias in favor of an exciting story. A spectacular, bloody crime is a story. A kidnapping of a beautiful girl is a story. Crime rate went down? Not a story, boring boring boring.

  11. The crime rate is down in Oregon, but we have had some very violent crimes that have been in the limelight recently – the Kyron Horman kidnapping, the violent beating death of a homeless person in downtown Portland, a murder-suicide involving a 56 year old man and his 6 year old son in Hillsboro, and a high profile case from 10 years ago that is current in the courts…all of these things have been on the local news within the last few weeks. Before these stories were featured, there were others.

    It’s hard to remember that crime is down when all that we hear on the local news are stories of truly horrible, violent, senseless crime.

    1. Maybe a reduction in the overall crime rate allows those particularly horrific stories to get more air time?

      Really it makes sense to me that the “news” outfits would want to serve the same profitable appetites that makes crime dramas such a hit in the world of literature and cinema. And I don’t think any particular “news” show could possibly hope to capture a representative slice of humanity or the world at large, so I don’t expect the “news” to inform me of either.

      1. I am sure that you are right – slower crime rate probably means more of a heavy focus on anything that happens.

        Any more I watch the local news for two reasons – traffic and weather. Other than that, it seems like it is mostly just sensationalism.

  12. Gah! There’s one point that always bothers me when this story comes up… people assume that the crime right is an indicator of the crime risk.

    Say a lot of people keep drowning in a local lake. The news gets ahold of it, there’s a fuss, people stop going to the lake. Now, not many people are drowning. But for some reason people still think the risk of drowning is very high. Silly people!

  13. “The six-week survey period wasn’t particularly crime-riddled, Renauer said. News of the Kyron Horman investigation had slowed. “There was nothing major that would have impacted the survey,” he said. ”

    I was surveyed for this and there were quite a few crimes highlighted in my brain when responding. All the ones mellowknees talked about as well as the downtown fatal nightclub shooting on New Years Eve that involved an officer “accidentally” discharging his firearm.

  14. There is another explanation and that is that people have changed their behavior in response to rising crime, ie don’t go out at night, stay away from certain areas, whatever. So the result of people living this besieged existence could well be less crime.

  15. People aren’t interpreting the data available in a way that gives them an accurate picture of the world they live in?

    Not really a new insight. I seem to recall some book published back in the 1920s where the narrator makes a similar observation:

    “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

    1. see Barry Glassner’s book- The Culture of Fear
      he talks about exactly what you are talking about in this thread

  16. Perhaps there’s a correlation between this reported mis-perception about how bad crime is in Oregon, and why Oregonians keep passing “tough-on-crime” ballot measures such as the one from 1994 (measure 11) that proscribed mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes, and one from 2008 (measure 57) that proscribed mandatory minimum sentences for drug and property crimes.

    (Measure 57’s on hold because, um, the state can’t currently afford to enforce it.)

    It’s obvious that the media takes into consideration what it thinks will get more viewers or readers when it chooses stories. This was especially apparent during the Tonya Harding scandal (she lives in the Portland Metro area). IIRC, it was the day the FBI released its report on the affair that one of the local stations spent the entire first half hour of its hour-long 5 pm newscast talking about it. Talk about pandering to the viewers. Most of their news stories got 2 or 3 minutes of airtime, tops. “If it bleeds, it leads,” indeed.

  17. It may be a “fact” that the crime rate has gone down in the UK. Don’t make the mistake of confusing crime statistics with actual crime.

    1. Pretty much every academic in the field of crime in the UK (including me) uses the National Crime Survey statistics, which are unconnected to police/Home Office stats. While there is a large (but decreasing) volume of unreported crime, the total crime level has absolutely plummeted over the last 20 years.

      The only possibility for this being incorrect is that people who’ve been victims of crime routinely lie and claim it didn’t happen when interviewed.

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