When it comes to crime, we are easily swayed by false perceptions and information. We lose our wallet to a pickpocket or hear about a mugging in our generally safe neighborhood and immediately assume that we are in the midst of a crime epidemic. We are pushed to anxiety by politicians who peddle exaggerated homicide statistics to prove they are tough on crime; by the blood-and-guts journalism of the tabloid press; by social media sites pandering to fear.
All this means we hold opinions that are often starkly at odds with reality. In the United States, for example, where crime has been roughly halved in the last 20 years, Gallup polls consistently show that a majority of people believe there was more crime in the country than the year before, a disconnect with reality that may have delayed efforts to reduce costly incarceration rates. In Chile, one of the safest countries in the region, a government-sponsored poll released in 2017 showed that 54% of people wanted criminals to serve more jail time.
Hardline anti-crime strategies that contradict the evidence
The implications for public policy are troubling. With false information rather than facts driving public opinion in Latin America and the Caribbean, citizens support — and politicians enact — hardline policies despite evidence that these have little or no effect on criminal behavior. Those include longer prison sentences and other punitive strategies that are far less effective than preventive ones, like investing in childhood education, parenting programs, and other social welfare policies.
In a recent study, Daniel Gingerich and I decided to test this dynamic further. Specifically we wanted to know how vulnerable citizens are to cognitive distortions when it comes to crime and how those distortions might affect their policy preferences. Our conclusions, suggesting knee-jerk reactions rather than considered opinions to the problems of delinquency, offer serious challenges to Latin America and the Caribbean as it tries to chart a more successful path against the crime problem.
An experiment in Panama
We chose Panama, a country which has seen sharply shifting crime trends recently, as a place to conduct our experiment. We embedded questions into the 2016/1017 Americas Barometer Survey. One surveyed group received an infographic that depicts a 75% rise in homicides in Panama from 2000 to 2013 and asks “Did you know that the homicide rate in Panama has nearly doubled in recent years?” against an image of a crime scene. The other group received a message that depicts a 25% decrease in crime from 2009-2013 and asks “Did you know the homicide rate in Panama has decreased in recent years” against a more peaceful image of a mother and her child walking in a park. Both statements about crime were accurate. They just reflected different starting dates, with the most recent years showing a homicide decline.
We also asked respondents to use ten coins and assign them to four different crime-fighting categories, reflecting how they would distribute a limited pool of resources. Those categories were punishment; detection, such as security systems; preventative measures, like vocational training and rehabilitation programs; and anti-poverty programs.
We found that the group exposed to the message about higher crime moved around 30% of resources from social policy to punishment compared to a control group. Moreover, when we broke that treatment group down into subcategories, we discovered that by far the greatest impact was on people who were uninformed. People who consumed substantial amounts of news were relatively unaffected by the news about rising homicides. But those who had little exposure to the news preferred punishment over social policy solutions by around 400%.
Shockingly, people who received the message about decreasing crime rates, hardly changed their preferences at all. And that suggests that while news about rising crime can stoke a passion for punishment, more positive news has barely any effect, perhaps because the mere mention of crime tends to lead people towards punitive and inflexible positions on the issue.
Misguided anti-crime strategies that lead to a booming prison population
Between 2002-2014 the penitentiary population of 17 countries in the region doubled to 1.2 million, a rate of growth that, if sustained, could see nearly 3.4 million people in prison by 2030 and cost governments millions more in annual expenditures. This is at least partly propelled by a public that favors ever increasing sentences – often on the basis of false, exaggerated or poorly understood information. Meanwhile, far too few resources are going to alternative strategies, like therapy for non-violent drug offenders, that achieve significantly better results.
It is not immediately obvious what can be done. Some of the disconnect with reality has to do with the breakdown of programmatic and institutionalized political parties that had a long-term vision and reined in party members inclined to lie or exaggerate about issues like crime for political gain. Some of it has to do with the spread of social media and the proliferation of web sites that cater to people’s tribal fears. In the long struggle to improve social policy, there is no easy solution. But the willingness of various social media sites to police themselves and suppress blatantly false information about crime and other issues is at least a good start.