Monday, December 21, 2015

How Today's Media Hijacks Our Species' Threat Assessment Mechanisms

This post could be subtitled "why most people ignore data when deciding what threatens them."

Back in September 2015, husband (also a sociologist) was driving me to a doctor's appointment to get my recently damaged hearing evaluated.  I had been exposed to extremely loud, percussive sounds of an AK-47 shooting blanks less than 15 feet from me, during an "active shooter training" session at the college where I teach. We were discussing the extent to which most of the people we knew, both college colleagues, students, and neighbors persistently ignored or refused to acknowledge all the accumulated data on crime in the United States that violent crime has declined steadily for many years. 

Overall violent crime, as recorded in the Uniform Crime Report of the FBI, as steadily and consistently declined from 1993 to the present, both in total numbers ( a decline of at least 700,000 per year from 1993 to 2012), and in rate (a decline from a rate of 747 per 100,000 in 1993 to only 386 per 100,000 in 2012) (FBI Uniform Crime Reports). Violent assaults on police officers, and officer deaths and injuries from assault have declined from 2004 to 2013 (National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund). 

School shootings, the ostensible prompt for the "Active Shooter Training" that damaged my hearing, are no where near as common as media and the public imagination figure them to be. There does appear to have been some uptick in such shootings in recent years, but many media, social and political discussions of such shootings overstate the numbers by 100 percent,  both since Columbine in 1997 and since Sandy Hook in 2012.

Even the trends of the death of civilians at the hands of law enforcement officers - a topic much in the news - is not at all clear. The Bureau of Justice Statistics gathered data on "arrest related deaths" from 2003 to 2009. But the BJS determined in 2014 that the validity and reliability of the data was not good, and "that the data collection likely did not capture all reportable deaths in the process of arrest" and suspended further data collection and the publication of any reports after 2009 (Bureau of Justice Statistics).

The data suggests that for the most part, the risks of violence in our society have declined in the past thirty years, not increased.  Yet nearly universally Americans have greater fear and anxiety about violence.  Why is that? 

The human species, Homo sapiens, evolved over millions of years in dangerous environments, where they were often the prey of other species, and beset by a wide range of perils. The Homo sapien brain is wired by this evolution to respond to the sounds, sights, and other sensory input from our immediate environment.  Threats from poisonous snakes, spiders, loose rocks, cliffs, torrential streams, large predators, even other humans, had to be evaluated on the basis of patterns of sound and sight. Frequent sightings, increased the threat. (See an interesting NPR piece about sound and the evolution of the human brain).  

The ancient foragers survival in their environment was based on evaluating immediate sensory perceptions, not on the dispassionate analysis of statistical data.  Today, our immediate sensory environment is circumscribed within man-made buildings, walks, roadways, and man-made media.  Every where we go, in every home, in every office, in every doctors' waiting room, every public space we are exposed to sights and sounds of television - mostly news programs, and at least in this part of the world (central Appalachia) almost always Fox News (although it is hardly limited to Fox News).  The news programming that we see is mostly about dangers - dangerous people, dangerous events.  A single event is covered 24 hours a day for multiple days, the same images of threat (explosions, gun shots, shouting, fighting, confrontations, rubble) are repeated over and over again. The human brain is wired to evaluate threat based on frequency of occurrence. While the higher functions of the brain can remind us that this is all one incident, one discrete moment in time, usually a very long ways away from us, the old "reptilian" parts of the brain simply process the nearness of the sounds and sights that repeat over and over again over long periods of time. It is not surprising that most people interpret this sensory input from media as an increasing threat. Especially when there are leaders (with lots of media coverage) who encourage the fear and anxiety as a means to gather followers and political power. 

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