According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report released on the 20th of September, 2021 homicides and manslaughter jumped 29.4% from 2019 to 2020, which represents the largest year-to-year increase since the US federal government began tracking violent crime statistics back inn the 1960s. Amid everything else that is emerging from the pandemic, this fact grabbed headlines around the world. Of course, it would because it feeds into the perception that society is crumbling, we are going to hell in a handbasket, and that things are just getting worse and worse.

We tend to take statistical morsels like this to indicate that things are deteriorating, year by year, decade by decade, and century by century. But are they really?

Is it true that squalid urban living is leading to more violence than we experienced in the pastoral idyll of the past? As we do with Liberating the Lemming articles, let’s dig into it so see if this belief in the dire present and beautiful past stands up.

The statistics reported by the FBI boiled down to a murder rate of 6.5 per 100,000 people. Any murder rate is more than we would want it to be, but let’s put it in context. In 2018 the homicide rate for Australia was 0.9 cases per 100,000 of population. In that same year the rate for London was 1.54 and New York had a rate of 3.4. So yes, there was a COVID spike in murder rates but does this mean we are on a downhill slide and that murder rates are climbing through our murky present having been know in our bright and sparkly past?

In the more immediate past New York’s figures were much higher than this (25.9 in 1993) but we are looking for a broader historical comparison, one that goes back centuries. In the University town of Oxford (UK) for instance, in the 1340s murder rates were around 110 per 100,000 whereas in 2018 the murder rate for Oxford was 0 (poor Inspector Morse was left twiddling his thumbs). In Amsterdam during the mid-15th century the murder rate was 47 but by the early 1800s was 1.5.

There are always spikes and dips in the rate but the point is that despite overcrowding, availability of weapons, and a plethora of information on how to do it, we are less likely to get murdered now than ever before. In fact, murder rates in medieval England prior to 1500 were around 10 times that of 20th century England. Things got a lot better after 1500 and murder rates have just about halved every century ever since. So what caused this?

Was it the rise of courtly manners (one who is well-bred doesn’t murder one’s florist, does one!) or perhaps the institution of law and order? In fact, it was probably a more unlikely cause in the form of improvements in communication, that reduced murder rates. The massive increase in reading and writing that occurred from the 1500s onwards meant that the law enforcement agencies could send messages faster and with more certainty to enable catching of the guilty party. This meant that your average surly footpad would think twice about sticking a knife into you and so improvements in literacy led to reductions in murders.

All of these statistics and conjectures beg the question, why do we believe things are getting worse, when they aren’t?

The answer to that is a trident, it’s three-pronged.

There are two relevant psychological phenomena that determine human beings’ attitude to the past. The “reminiscence bump” refers to the tendency for adults to have more vivid and pleasant memories of teenage and early adult years because these are generally times of minimum pressure, few responsibilities, and plentiful pleasure. There is also the “positivity effect” which is the trick that the brain plays on itself to feel good about life by tending to remember positive life events. Then as far as the present moment goes, we are disposed to focussing on the negative, which has been dubbed “negativity bias”. This negativity bias refers is the human tendency to register negative events more readily and to dwell on these events. In fact, on a biological level there is greater neural processing in the brain in response to negative stimuli. It makes evolutionary sense, because bad things tend to be more indicative of threat and so right now, that’s what your brain choses to focus on. You don’t want to stop and smell the roses when a sabre-toothed something is trying to lance your buttock with its fangs.

Wrap the reminiscence bump, positivity effect, and negativity bias together in the human psyche and we all become Chicken Littles running around proclaiming that the sky is about to fall, that the world is so much more unsafe, and everything is just a disaster. You know what, though? It isn’t.