The Optimist

There Will Not Be Blood

Across the world, crime is down -- and in a big way. Are violent movies to thank for less real blood and gore?

Greg Williams/Eon Productions via Getty Images
Greg Williams/Eon Productions via Getty Images

For all the grim news about the economy and jobs over the last few years, one indicator of the quality of life in the United States has stubbornly continued to improve. The latest Federal Bureau of Investigation data suggests crime rates went on falling through the first half of 2011, recession be damned. In 1991, the overall national violent crime rate reported by the FBI was 758 cases per 100,000 inhabitants; by 2010, that had dropped to 404 per 100,000. The murder and "nonnegligent homicide" rate dropped by more than half over the same period. You wouldn’t know it from watching television — beyond the continuing conviction that "if it bleeds it leads" on local news, the number of violent acts on prime-time TV shows climbs ever-upward. But that rise in fake violence may have played some role in the real-life trend heading squarely the other way.

The United States isn’t alone in a trend towards people just getting along better — it’s a global phenomenon. In 2001, homicide killed more than twice the number of people worldwide who died in wars (an estimated 557,000 people versus total war deaths of around 208,000). But just as in the United States, violent crime rates have been falling across a large part of the planet. The data is patchy, but in 2002, about 332,000 homicides from 94 countries around the globe were reported to the United Nations. By 2008, that had dropped to 289,000. And between those years, the homicide rate fell in 68 reporting countries and increased in only 26.

Look at the really long-term picture and violent crime rates are way down. Institute of Criminology professor Manuel Eisner reaches all the way back to the 13th century to report that typical homicide rates in Europe dropped from about 32 per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages down to 1.4 per 100,000 in the 20th century. (Sadly, of course, for all of their decline, U.S. rates are still more than three times that — a rate above what Eisner suggests is the Western average for the 1700s.)

The global picture of the last few years, along with the historical picture covering the West over the last 800 years, both suggest that there isn’t just a constant proportion of bad people out there who will commit a crime unless you lock them up before they do it. And there’s a lot more evidence that whatever is behind declining violence it isn’t the number behind bars — or, indeed, the length of sentencing or the number of cops on the street.

It is true that a Pew Center report suggests that as U.S. crime rates were declining, the national prison population increased from 585,000 to 1.6 million between 1987 and 2007. But the rest of the world hasn’t followed the United States down the path towards mass incarceration, and yet has still seen declining violence. The U.N. crime trends survey suggests that homicides fell in Britain by 29 percent between 2003 and 2008 alone, for example. And yet the incarceration rate in Britain was one-fifth as high as the United States, according to the Pew report. Again, within the United States, one of the places with the most dramatic drops in violent crime is New York City — the homicide rate is 80 percent down from 1990. But while the rest of the country was locking up ever more people, New York City’s incarceration rate fell by 28 percent over the last two decades.

What about harsh punishment? Statistics from MIT psychologist Stephen Pinker’s new book on global trends in violence show the United States used to execute more than 100 times the amount of people in the 1600s as it does today — and yet violence rates then were far higher than today. Think Clint Eastwood’s western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Despite all of the authorized hangings, there was still a lot of unofficial shooting. More broadly, the number of countries using the death penalty has declined worldwide — along with violent crime rates.

In a survey asking "What Do Economists Know About Crime" for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Angela Dills, Jeffrey Miron, and Garrett Summers conclude "economists know little." They suggest that it isn’t just incarceration or the death penalty — any link between lower crime and the number of police, higher arrest rates, and the stock of guns (whether more or less of them) is weak. Studies from Latin America have echoed that longer sentences are not linked to lower crime rates — although a higher probability of being caught may be related to less violence in the region.

At the same time, for those convinced that crime is a product of poverty and inequality, the recent trends for New York and the nation as a whole also pose a challenge: For all the growing estates of the plutocrats in Wall Street, neither growing inequality nor rising unemployment has reversed the downward path of crime. Similarly, Latin American evidence suggests that while rising inequality might be linked to increased violence in the region, average incomes are not — richer countries are no safer than poorer ones, all else equal.

What about drugs, then? Interestingly, the NBER survey notes that drug enforcement might increase crime. The authors suggest that "If government forces a market underground, participants substitute violence for other dispute-resolution mechanisms," — i.e., if they can’t go to court to settle their dispute over who gets which street corner, rival drug gangs will shoot each other instead.

New York’s experience suggests that it is possible to reduce the violence associated with drugs by taking those disputes off of the street. Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that one important factor behind the decline in homicide in New York was shutting down open-air drug markets. It didn’t slow sales, but it did eliminate 90 percent of drug-related killings over turf conflicts. Echoing the recent pattern in New York City, Eisner suggests that the long-term historical decline in Western homicide rates as a whole is associated with "a drop in male-to-male conflicts in public space."

Over the sweep of centuries, Eisner suggests that cultural change — from "knightly warrior societies" to "pacified court societies" — is an important factor. So are we just getting more civilized, then? Indeed, the decline in violence coincides with global evidence of converging attitudes towards greater toleration. For example, the proportion of people worldwide who say they wouldn’t want to have a neighbor of a different religion dropped from 67 percent to 48 percent between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s. Turn on the television and you’d be sure to think that political dialogue is getting more rancid by day. And it might be, but people’s attitudes are actually becoming more pacific and tolerant.

Cultural factors are important, then. But before you rush to deride the Federal Communications Commission and the Supreme Court for their lackadaisical attitude to violence on television, note that the trend towards more — and more graphic — violence on TV doesn’t quite sync with the pattern of crime rates. A culture of violence and violence in popular culture are two very different things. In fact, one more element of cultural change that may behind declining violence is the substitution of fantasy violence for the real thing. French historian Robert Muchembeld argues in his book, History of Violence, that crime fiction and novels about war have given young men a way to indulge in violent fantasies without actually going out and stabbing someone. Or, over the last few years, they could stab someone playing Grand Theft Auto rather than stab someone while actually committing grand theft auto. This is the blood-and-gore version of the argument that that more pornography leads to lower sexual violence.

There might be something to it. While exposing kids to the latest cadaver on CSI — or to Jack Bauer’s lessons in successful torture on 24 — is probably a bad idea, watching an action movie might in fact reduce violence among adults. A recent study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics suggests that violent crime rates actually dropped when a blood-splattered blockbuster was in the cinema in the United States. The authors Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna looked at data from 1995 to 2004 and concluded that violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend in the United States.

Perhaps humanity will never completely abandon its lust for blood. But it appears that lust can in fact be sated using fake blood wielded by Hollywood special-effects technicians. And outside the theater, people respond to behavioral cues — if their friends don’t stab people to win an argument, they are less likely to do it themselves. They also respond to institutional cues — if they can use the courts to settle a dispute or address a wrong, they’re less likely to resort to blood feuds. All of which suggests the hope that, in years to come, there will be a lot more deaths on TV and movie screens than in the real world.

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