May 10, 2011

During falling-crime times, people are more dismissive of the pleas of others

The fable about the boy who cried wolf has come a long way from its origins as a story about the just comeuppance of some rascally nomadic herder who had been tormenting the sedentary farmers with his lies. The original thus belongs to the long history of farmer vs. herder conflict (the Mongols vs. the Chinese, Cain vs. Abel, etc.).

Now it is usually told about a boy who loses the trust of someone who actually cares about him in the beginning (unlike the ambivalence or hatred that farmers have for herders) -- a blood parent, a kindhearted teacher, or someone like that. This changes the story from one that issues a warning only to the would-be liar to quite a different one that also warns the grown-up guardian that sometimes the little liars get into some serious shit and truly need your help, or else they're goners, so don't be so cold-hearted -- even granting that they do tend to exaggerate or cry wolf a lot or most of the time.

I gave one reason here why people in rising-crime times bear less of a grudge, which I'll copy at the end of this post. * But another one just struck me, and can be cast in terms of believing or ignoring a cry of "wolf!"

All else equal, when some behavior gives a person less benefits, they tend to do less of it. So let's look at the net benefits you get from making the leap of faith and coming to the aid of someone who cries wolf. It's an act of trust or faith because you have no way to tell whether they really mean it. In words:

Net benefit = saving them from danger (weighted by how likely this is), minus wasted effort (weighted by how likely this is)

Or in symbols:

Net = S*p - W*(1-p)

Net is again the net benefit, S is how large the effect of saving them is, p is the probability that the person is telling the truth (that is, how likely it is that you're saving them, rather than wasting your effort), W is how large your wasted effort is if they're lying, which happens with probability (1-p) since probabilities add up to 1.

We're more likely to go along with their story when Net is larger -- when on average it will accomplish more. So whatever makes the first chunk, S*p, bigger, and whatever makes the second chunk, W*(1-p), smaller, will make the overall Net larger, and thus make us more likely to indulge the person's plea.

Look at what happens when the crime rate starts soaring, after a period when it had been falling or bottoming out. There are now a lot more bad guys out there, so it's more likely that this person has truly run into a big problem. So p gets larger, while (1-p) therefore gets smaller. Because small probabilities are impossible for a person to measure, I doubt that people have a keen sense of just how much more likely it is that the person is telling the truth when there are more bad guys out there. This change will tilt them in the more credulous direction, but I think it's of secondary importance.

I'm assuming that W, the amount of effort you waste in listening to and believing their story, stays the same whether times are getting more or less dangerous. It's like running into the room when the kid shouts "fire!" and it turns out they're just joking -- the wasted effort is your getting anxious, moving your muscles, and feeling embarrassed when they point and laugh at the sucker. So this has no effect on tilting you toward or away from helping out in falling vs. rising-crime times.

The main factor is what happens to S, the effect of you believing their story and saving them. In these crying wolf situations, saving them amounts to avoiding some danger, so S measures how big that danger is that you're saving them from. In much safer times, the typical bad problem, or even variety of bad problems, that the person could have gotten themselves into is not so terrifying. For example, since the crime rate peaked in 1992, serial killers have been virtually unknown, aside from the single exception of the Beltway Sniper. The last guys like that were Jeffrey Dahmer and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs -- and before them the Hillside Stranglers, Leatherface, the Manson cult, Son of Sam, Freddy Krueger, the men behind the Atlanta child murders, and the rest of them.

I don't know exactly how much greater S becomes in rising-crime times, but it's the difference between the child's waking nightmare being a bully punching him at school or some creepy fag following him around the supermarket, as opposed to a serial killer who abducts, kills, and maybe even dismembers the body, or a child molester who doesn't just follow but actually violates him, or a drug dealer who gives him his first free hit off a crack pipe to get him hooked. Go back and watch Taxi Driver, Dirty Harry, The Terminator, or whatever movie will remind you of how sick and twisted the monsters among us used to be. Then compare that to school bullies, hackers stealing his identity, and the other less vile stuff that the bad guys have been up to these days. It seems like it's at least a 10-fold difference when you save them from the boogeyman in the former than in the latter times.

Like I said, small probabilities are impossible for a person to guess on the spot, but looking back, how much more likely was a kid to be abducted, raped, beaten, killed, etc., before the violence level came crashing down? In the Finkelhor article linked to in the post below on kidnappers, the decline in various forms of child abuse ranges from about 50-80%, so let's just be conservative and say 50%. That means that finding themselves in deep shit was twice as likely for children during the '80s and early '90s, when the violence level was plateau-ing at a high level, than during most of the '90s and the 2000s.

So by my completely ballpark estimate, you're getting 20 times the benefit by going along with their plea when you're in rising-crime times. But there's so much guesswork that a person does on-the-spot that they might easily perceive it to be 100 or 1000 times more effective to help out in rising-crime times. Who really knows?

This resolves a paradox that I don't think has gotten much of a focus yet, and that is that while we always hear about how bad parents were in rising-crime times -- divorce rates were higher, whippings more common, and daycare / television / latchkey children more prevalent -- they trusted us a hell of a lot more than the helicopter parents of the past 15 to 20 years. They had more faith in us. And they really treasured us, rather than treating us like pets who they get to dress up to impress their limpdick and saggy-titted peers.

It may not sound pleasant, but the truth is that dangerous times cause parents and children to bond more closely in the face of a common wave of violence. There's no bonding without trust or faith between the two parties.

And of course this generalizes to all other cases where someone makes an earnest plea to someone in a higher social position who can help them (or possibly get suckered) -- blacks reaching out to whites, women to men, younger to old, third-worlders to first-worlders, minority to majority political parties, one sub-culture to another. Although it lasted for several years later, the most visible peak of this, partly a spreading of goodwill and charity and partly a carnivalesque uniting against a common threat, was Live Aid in 1985.

During the past 20 years of falling violence levels, there has been an attendant plummeting in the probability that someone stretching out their hand has gotten into some really heavy shit, as well as in the size of the danger that we would help them to avoid by believing their story. As a result, trust and faith in the pleas of others have mostly evaporated, and by losing the ties that would otherwise have bound us to those who we went along with and helped out, our social worlds have collapsed into tiny bubbles that include only those who we're absolutely, positively sure would not try to sucker us -- ourselves, some close blood relatives, and a friend only if we've sworn a blood oath, most friendships today being rather superficial, at-arm's-length, and easily dissolvable.

* People measure grudges as a fraction of their lifetimes, not on an absolute scale, so when life appears shorter, you hold a grudge for a shorter length of time. Plus there's the looming threat that you have to attend to that gives you an extra incentive to reconcile your differences and get back to protecting yourselves and kicking the bad guys' asses.


  1. Do you think we'll ever get back to corporal punishment being generally accepted by society? Just wondering if there's something in your research, or that you could research, that would trend it coming and going over time?

    I think your info helps me make some sense of the current societal/political trend away from support of social programs. While it's a very simplistic answer that does not incorporate economics, immigration, foreign affairs, and other factors, it may explain a little why there has been a overall lessening of empathy. Someone's going to read that and peg me as a bleeding-heart liberal, which I'm not. I'm actually observing conservatives, in this case.

    You make me laugh: "limpdick and saggy-titted peers."

  2. I did look at the history of childhood, but there isn't a whole lot there. Most of the people argue over whether something was or was not there, rather than how common it was, or if it was gaining vs. losing popularity.

    Overall it did seem like corporal discipline was higher in rising-crime times, but it's hard to say. I wouldn't be surprised if it came back when the crime rate starts rising again -- society will see kids as potential monsters and feel more lenient on their guardians who may have to get a little rough now and then to keep order, like Dirty Harry or Martin Riggs.

    Yeah, both libs and conservatives have become echo chamber, snickering nerds who lack any feeling for their common man. Or, we all feel solidarity for those included in the Us category, but who Us includes has shrunken dramatically.

    And similarly back in the day it was libs and conservatives both who were trying to reach out to others, strengthen the team, take on the enemy, etc. They disagreed on how to do that, but the basic concern for a wide circle of people was there, vs. cutting themselves off from everyone else like the SWPLs have done.

  3. And by "the team" and "the enemy," I don't mean the Democratic or liberal team and its enemies -- that's the recent pattern -- but the team of our country (or larger world) and its enemies.

  4. My folks grew up in the 50s when crime was low and had minimal parent observation. My mom actually had NO parents around (not just at home but in the same city) starting from a fairly young age.

    Live Aid sounds like Bono-esque rich first world charity. The first world did not face a "common threat" of famine like Ethiopia.

  5. "The first world did not face a "common threat" of famine like Ethiopia."

    Of course they didn't -- that's why it falls under aid, as I said. The point is, who gets counted in the Us circle, within which the better-off will lend a hand to the worse-off?

    Back then, the East Africans counted. The common threat was not famine but the crumbling-apart of order in the universe, the evil forces that appeared to be sweeping over the whole Earth. Look at The Terminator, made one year earlier, and notice that most people thought L.A. either already did look like Armageddon or would within a generation.


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