Friday, October 21, 2011

Nostalgia: lots of people miss a horrible, scary past

I argue a lot on this blog that many people are far too pessimistic about the prevalence of things like crime, terrorism or war. My usual argument is that these are either statistically improbable compared with more mundane threats (drink drivers are more likely to kill you than Al Qaeda) or that the extent of such violence is actually declining, that the past we remember with fondness was worse.

Today I see a really striking example of that, taken from the 2008 Garda Public Attitudes Survey, which asked Irish survey respondents about their attitudes on crime-related issues. There are mountains of data available in this so I will just draw your attention to a few small samples. First, when asked if they feared becoming victims of crime, or if they feared family members or friends becoming victimised, an ever-shrinking proportion of respondents since 2002 have said yes.
These are pretty significant improvements, with only 37% of respondents saying they feared for themselves in 2008, down from 52% six years earlier. Another pair of questions asking how safe respondents feel walking alone after dark or being alone at night both showed falling levels of fear between 2005 and 2008. So the level of fear of crime seems to have fallen.

Yet respondents on another question overwhelmingly claimed that crime rates were increasing.
And further, respondents - every year - are more likely to claim that they feel a greater fear of crime today than they did either one year ago or six years ago.
So even as fewer people feel fear of crime, they remain convinced that there was a safer time in the recent past; they feel nostalgia for a period when people were actually more afraid.

Maybe one clue to understanding this is from the question about falling or rising crime perceptions. Almost half of respondents thought that crime in their own area was the same as ever, while the vast majority thought crime in Ireland as a whole was worsening. Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear also makes this observation, pointing out that individuals make their judgements about their own area from personal experience and observation, but judge the wider society through exposure to crime-obsessed and sometimes sensationalist news media.

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