March 2, 2013

Why do people rely more on intuition in periods of rising crime?

The various social, cultural, and biological changes that accompany rising crime rates -- and their opposites that accompany falling crime rates -- come as a big bunch. * Some of their links can get complicated, such as a rising crime rate and an optimal level of ornamentation in the arts, neither minimalist nor overly encrusted.

However, for the greater reliance on intuition, the effect appears directly tied to the rising crime rate itself. You might think that when people sense a greater and greater threat to their security, especially from active agents like human beings rather than random flukes like natural disasters, they should go into rational-analytical mode. That might help them to better assess the threat, generate a list of possible responses, evaluate them according to some criteria, and execute the one that wins out in the ranking.

But then, why don't any animals other than us have such rational-analytical skills, when they're far more shaped by the struggle for survival against violence and predation than we are? While they may not simply be following blind instinct or reflex, they are operating mostly on a gut level.

Intuition serves us well in situations that our ancestors faced over and over. Whatever worked becomes more built-in through the "Baldwin Effect". Even within our own lifetimes, intuition works better when we've had lots of experience in that kind of situation, and the right response comes more automatically. Reason and analysis are more for highly unfamiliar obstacles, like estimating the circumference of the Earth, deciding whether to set the marginal tax rate at X percent vs. Y percent, and so on. None of our ancestors faced those problems, and most of us have no experience dealing with them within our own lifetimes.

Where does the threat of crime come from? Well, it's not from industry, hi-tech, big government, or other unfamiliar modern threats. It's the weirdo down the street who's been peeping and may escalate to rape. Or the teenage thrill-seekers who'd rather break in and rip off some stuff than work for a living. Or troops of low-status males looking for something fun to do that would earn them respect -- like, say, ambushing some random pedestrian. All familiar threats to the ancestors of those living today.

So, when one of the main national issues becomes the soaring crime rate, we shouldn't over-think things, just like we shouldn't be able to consciously control our heartbeat or breathing patterns -- too important at the most fundamental level of survival. It's better to trust your instincts, not only for how you ought to respond individually but also in your relationships with others, since striving for greater security in such a topsy-turvy world will require group effort and mutual aid.

There are indirect effects too. For example, one of the strongest intuitions that people have about dealing with the threat of crime and predation is that you shouldn't go out alone, you should hang out with others instead. That makes you a harder target to isolate. Now that you're spending more time socially connected to others, you rely even more on intuition because people and social interactions are part of our evolutionary heritage. It's artifacts, civilization, etc., that is so wholly unfamiliar and in need of a rational-analytical approach.

Even in areas that don't seem to require an intuitive style to deal with, I think you see "spill-over" effects from the pressure to be intuitive when dealing with crime and social relationships. Your brain doesn't want to be pulled in opposite directions all day long, every day of your life. So it picks one general direction to go in, and tries to cope with the demands made on it when it "should have" gone in the other. Personality traits are like that, where a person is generally introverted or extraverted, although somewhat flexible according to the situation.

When different domains make opposite demands of your personality, you go toward whichever one seems to satisfy the most pressing issues. Crime, security, and social relationships within a rising-crime context (relying on others for support after and as a deterrent beforehand) -- those are way more important than being able to think your way through your math homework, optimize your family's finances, and so on. So despite opposing demands toward reason, intuition wins out in a rising-crime environment.

I should look into whether rising or falling-crime periods produce more technological innovation, after accounting for the overall rapid rise since the industrial revolution. Falling-crime periods are nerdier and more rational, but rising-crime periods are more risk-taking and team-oriented. It'll be interesting to see if the social-cultural zeitgeist makes any difference in the material domain of inventing technology.

* Periods of rising homicide rates -- ca. 1580 to 1630, ca. 1780 to 1830, ca. 1900 to early '30s, and ca. 1960 to 1990. Elizabethan-Jacobean, Romantic-Gothic, the Jazz Age, and the New Wave Age.

Periods of falling homicide rates -- the remainder. The Age of Reason-Enlightenment, Victorian, Mid-20th century, and Millennial.


  1. There's more leeway for mistakes during an outgoing time. Though this seems counter-intuitive, since times become more dangerous.

    But during reclusive times, the culture is so conformist that doing something wrong can leave you alienated. Furthermore, people have weak instincts, and make some pretty off-the-wall mistakes. Look at how some celebrities seriously fucked themselves up the past 20 years. Michael Jackson is the best example. What was he thinking with all that plastic surgery and sharing a bed with little kids?


  2. It probably also has to do with the obsessive-compulsiveness you were talking about.

    When you're isolated, most people ask "what did I do wrong?" then frantically try to figure out how to become socially integrated. They try to rationally come up with an answer, second-guess minor things, etc. Except it doesn't do any help, its just the zeitgeist.

    furthermore, for good intuition, you need actual experience.


  3. We also have modern police to respond to crime, something we didn't have in our evolutionary past.

  4. Human behavior is very flexible, and just because we didn't have to deal with a certain situation back in the day, doesn't mean we can't appropriately deal with it now.


  5. off-topic, but I saw an interesting Twilight Zone last night. Rod Serling, who wrote it, is from the tail-end of the Greatest Generation - the same guys who really made the push when the crime rate started to rise.

    Episode is called "Walking Distance". About a 36-year old "company man" who magically revisits his childhood during the outgoing early 1930s. Pretty bleak shit, especially one scene when he tries to warn his 11-year old self that "enjoy this, since its all downhill from here"...

    Here's a link to it on Vimeo, watch it if you get the chance, its only half an hour:

    Serling was born in 1924. That means he would have experienced a happy childhood during the late 20s and early 30s, before the crime rate began to fall in the mid-30s. ANd indeed, his 36-year old stand-in in the episode is, by his own vague description, "at a dead-end", haunted, old before his time. While his childhood his idyllic, with small children freely playing out of doors, visiting a nearby fair(whatever happened to traveling fairs, anyway?) unsupervised, older boys outside working on their cars, etc.

    The episode is dated 1959, first season of the Twilight Zone. This is when people were first starting to ask themselves "Why does life suck so much, anyway?", especially those old enough to have experienced something different.


  6. "We also have modern police to respond to crime"

    That's part of the rationalizing tendencies of falling-crime times. No need to rely on intuition or social behavior -- the cops are out there to prevent crime and catch the bad guys even if it does happen.

    The radio programs about "G-men" thwarting gangsters from the mid-century, or today's Law & Order / CSI are similar.

    But it's just another one of our illusions about the omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence of experts and authority figures. If they were so capable, we wouldn't have decades of rising crime rates.

  7. "Episode is called "Walking Distance". About a 36-year old "company man" who magically revisits his childhood during the outgoing early 1930s."

    Thanks for pointing this one out. I remember seeing it, but of course I had no idea that it had an extra layer on top of childhood nostalgia. It's more about longing for one time period over the contemporary period, regardless of what age you are / would have been.

    It's like those flashback scenes from It's a Wonderful Life.

    BTW, the character's last name in the episode is Sloan -- obviously a reference to Sloan Wilson, author of Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

  8. Law & Order began in the 80s, but I think the CSI forensics type show is more modern. I've never actually seen Quincy M.E and can't say how it compares.

    Steve Pinker's "Leviathan" hypothesis seems to have a lot going for it, where establishment of government order leads to a long-term decline in the crime rate. There may be decades of rising crime, but compared to the centuries-long trend it's noise.

  9. Law & Order's first season was '90-'91, didn't crack the top 30 for ratings until '94. Dumbass Millennials can't even check Wikipedia anymore...

    The centralized nation-state is different from the local police forces that are the focus of cop fantasy shows. Leviathan doesn't explain the variation across decades, only across centuries. And there are a million other variables that have moved monotonically in the past 500 years, not just the size / power of the state, so we can't decide whether it's the state or any of those other inter-connected variables.

    To keep the explanatory variables to a minimum, we need to look to those that work on a decade level. There are enough swings up and down to show that they're causally related, not just a coincidence of one-way trends.

    The age structure is one, and that's changed not only over centuries but also on the decade level. That's more likely than Leviathan -- we have too few young people, especially compared to middle-aged people, to be as carousing, rambunctious, and violent as the English did in Chaucer's day.

    And the other is cocooning. Historians of crime point out that a predictor of how violent a time and place is, is the prevalence of young males hanging out in public spaces. Like getting into a drunken argument in a tavern and stabbing the other guy.

    We've become a lot more physically isolated from other people over the last 500 years, particularly with regard to amount of time spent in public spaces.

    One or perhaps both of those work better than Leviathan, not only at the decade but also the century level. I'd attribute the rise of Leviathan to being an epiphenomenon of those two major changes -- when the population gets a lot older and more cocooned, they want societal regulation to be outsourced to a third party (the government), rather than manage affairs in more local, face-to-face ways like feuding or paying weregild to victims.

  10. I didn't think the age-structure had changed that much during most of those centuries. Although if homicide was trending down, that might itself raise the average age.

    I disagree about police being unimportant. Alex Tabarrok made use of the "natural experiment" of Homeland Security alerts which always end up being based on nothing, but concentrated police in certain areas in D.C on some days. More cops result in less crime. New York more purposefully used David Kennedy's "dynamic concentration" in particular areas to good effect. Additionally, as Pinker noted, when police go on strike you get a lot more crime.

  11. But it's just another one of our illusions about the omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence of experts and authority figures. If they were so capable, we wouldn't have decades of rising crime rates.

    As per the theory here, the vigilance of the masses seems if anything less effective. Constabularies at least have the evidence of a long term trend to reducing crime. Rising crime vigilance doesn't even have that.

    It only stops when people start going indoors.

    Sympathy with the policeman, rather than the criminal, I thought you had said, was more typical or rising crime periods. Is this only when the policeman is a troubled "maverick", not some Police Academy joker?


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