The homicide rate has been declining in the United States, and advances in health care, nutrition, and sanitation have dramatically reduced mortality from more common causes such as accident and illness.
Despite these positive trends, many people continue to perceive the world as a place that’s growing increasingly dangerous, and these fears can have devastating psychological consequences.
The United States Has Become a Safer Place, Particularly for Children
In the U.S., 30% of all deaths in 1900 involved children under 5 years of age; in 1999, that figure was 1.4% (Field & Behrman, 2003). Although violent deaths resulting from crime receive a disproportionate amount of media coverage, accidents and illnesses are responsible for the majority of deaths, particularly among children.
Mortality due to illness and accident declined dramatically over the past century, and according to the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. homicide rates have dropped off sharply after hitting a peak in the 1970s through 1990s, and are continuing to decline. As for the likelihood of being the victim of a larger-scale crime, Carl Robichaud, of The Century Foundation, provides a number of positive global statistics:
- Armed conflicts have declined by over 50% since the beginning of the 1990s.
- The number of worldwide genocides and “politicides” fell by 80% between 1988 and 2001.
- International arms deals declined by 33% in real dollar values from 1990 to 2003.
- The number of refugees decreased 45% from 1992 to 2003.
According to the Human Security Centre (2005), battle-related deaths have also declined heavily since 1953, and the spread of democratization is decreasing the number of governments that are likely to engage in war and genocide.
The Perception of an Increasingly Dangerous World Causes Mental Illness
A longitudinal study of 10,308 men and women (Jackson & Stafford, 2009) found that those with greater crime fears were 1.5 times more likely to suffer from various mental disorders, with nearly twice as many fearful individuals succumbing to depression. In addition, those who had intense fears of victimization were less socially active, stayed indoors more, and got less exercise, thereby increasing their risk for developing mental and physical health problems.
The perception that the world is becoming increasingly dangerous diminishes quality of life, erodes social trust, and undermines community spirit, but this faulty impression is difficult to correct because certain individuals and organizations benefit from maintaining it.
Many Factors Contribute to the Belief That the World Is Getting Worse
The myth that the world is becoming increasingly dangerous is useful to politicians for a variety of reasons, including instilling fear of change, justifying military spending, and attacking political rivals for neglecting perceived risk factors. As a profit-driven establishment, the media also has a strong motivation to focus on bad news, given that dramatic, shocking stories are far more likely to capture and hold public attention.
Further contributing to the perception of increasing crime danger is the fact that statistics can paint a confusing picture. In 1984, the FBI reported that there were nearly 350,000 missing children, but of these, just 67 had been kidnapped by strangers (Peele, 1995). When abductions do take place, it is most often a parent who does the abducting, but despite the rarity of stranger kidnappings, media coverage often gives the impression that large numbers of children are regularly being snatched from backyards and shopping malls by psychopaths.
To make matters worse, urban legends create fears where none previously existed. For example, a couple of reports of poisoned Halloween candy led to widespread panic that strangers would lace children’s Halloween treats with toxic substances or booby trap them with razor blades. But in the two sensational cases of children who died after eating Halloween candy, it was determined that family members — not strangers — were responsible for the toxic substances (Peele, 1995).
Perhaps most problematic, studies show that depressed people have a tendency to remember negative information over positive (Salkind, 2008), and so the relentless bombardment with negative media stories can have a particularly devastating effect. Given that fear of crime increases the likelihood of developing depression, and that depression increases the likelihood of fixating on stories about brutal crimes, this can create a nasty, destructive cycle.
Statistical Trends Indicate That the World Is Becoming Safer
Overall, the world is becoming safer, though progress is uneven. Some places remain dangerous, and socioeconomic disparities continue to present significant problems in North America and worldwide. However, the majority of trends show that the dangerousness of the world, particularly for children, is actually decreasing in most places. The focus on isolated, terrifying events continues to blind people to the very real and steady progress that has been made toward a safer society.
To read about plummeting crime rates in the U.S. and other good news from around the world, visit the Good News Network. For more psychology articles, visit the main Psychology page. For more on depression, see the main Depression page.
- Anderson, M.K., & The Communitarian Network. (13 January 2003). The State of America’s Children 2003. Washington, DC: The National Press Club.
- Field, M. J., & Behrman, R.E., Eds. (2003). When Children Die: Improving Palliative and End-of-Life Care for Children and Their Families. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
- Fox, J.A., & Zawitz, M.W., U.S. Department of Justice. (2003). Homicide Trends in the United States: 2000 Update. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
- Human Security Centre. (2005). The Human Security Report 2005. Liu Institute for Global Issues, Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia.
- Jackson, J., & Stafford, M. (20 May 2009). “Public Health and Fear of Crime: A Prospective Cohort Study.” British Journal of Criminology. Oxford Journals.org.
- MacKenzie, E.J. (2000). “Epidemiology of Injuries: Current Trends and Future Challenges.” Epidemiologic Reviews, 22(1), pp. 112-119.
- Peele, S. (1995). Diseasing of America. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
- Robichaud, C. (5 December 2006). “A More Dangerous World? Think Again.” The Century Foundation, CenturyFoundation.org.
- Salkind, N.J. (2008). Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.