Fear of Crime and Information Theory

An appropriate lead-in to this post is the quote attributed to Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” This fits very nicely into the structure of information theory, as formulated by Claude Shannon sixty years ago. His measure of information is equivalent to the reciprocal of the probability of occurrence of an event (specifically, the logarithm of this number). That is, if the probability of an occurrence is 100% (1.0), that is, if it’s certain to occur, then its information content is the logarithm[1] of 1, or 0; if the probability is 10%, its information content is 1; if its probability is .001, its information content is 3. In other words, the less likely the event is to occur, the higher the information content of its occurrence. That’s why it’s also called a measure of “surprise,” because the occurrence of a highly unlikely event is more surprising than one that is highly likely to occur.

What, pray tell, does this have to do with fear of crime? A lot, it turns out. As Steven Pinker has shown, violence and violent death has declined markedly over the past few centuries, and we are much, much less likely than our ancestors to die at the hands of others, either through wars or by crimes of violence. But this very fact means that (per the quote at the top of this post) each violent death nowadays has a greater surprise value than it did in the past. And that greater surprise value translates directly into greater fear – fear that oneself or one’s family is going to be harmed by others.

So we have this paradox: the safer we make ourselves, the more fear we have – of the unknown, of “them” (any outsider), of MS-13, of the person walking toward you (“Quick, get out your gun before he gets his out”). And of course, it is all so easy to stir up fear in a population, especially when those in power, whom we expect to be responsible adults, are the ones stirring it up.

‘Nuff said.

[1] To make it easy to follow, I’m using logs to the base 10. For those who slept through math class, the logarithm of a number goes up much more slowly than the number itself, so in the examples above the log of 1 is 0, of 10 (the reciprocal of 1/10) is 1, and of 1000 is 3. End of lesson.

Author: Mike Maltz

Michael D. Maltz is Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice and of Information and Decision Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is currently an adjunct professor of sociology at the Ohio State University His formal training is in electrical engineering (BEE, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1959; MS & PhD Stanford University, 1961, 1963), and he spent seven years in that field. He then joined the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (now National Institute of Justice), where he became a criminologist of sorts. After three years with NIJ, he spent thirty years at the University of Illinois at Chicago, during which time he was a part-time Visiting Fellow at the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. Maltz is the author of Recidivism, coauthor of Mapping Crime in Its Community Setting, and coeditor of Envisioning Criminology.

2 thoughts on “Fear of Crime and Information Theory”

  1. Mike,

    I’m not disagreeing with you about the “surprise” value of rare crimes. Rather, I feel like this ignores the “social” nature of the way we -ascribe- crimes to various -groups- (and, heck, how we construct those groups in your imaginations). I’ll just give two examples, b/c too tiresome …

    (1) Sikhs, b/c they wear turbans, and we all know that “ragheads” are terrorists, don’t we?

    (2) Good old boys from my hometown of Weatherford TX, where it was clear, clear, clear that a brown-skinned boy like me, ought not to display any sign of a sexual drive, or bad things might happen. Sufficiently clear that one day this brown-skinned boy got attacked by his whole P.E. class …. b/c (wait for it … wait for it) he was gay.

    Yes, that’s RIGHT! I got attacked by my PE class, for doing my best to NOT GET LYNCHED!!!!!

    It’s a complex thing, who gets blamed for various crimes. Sometimes, nobody gets blamed, but instead, people like Donnie Smallhands get *acclaimed*, b/c after all, accounting control fraud is just a sign that somebody is *smart*, and worthy of being Predisent. That’s not a crime, is it? NoOoOoo.

  2. I’m not sure I buy the model here.

    What about the frequency of events? High probability events have high frequency. If crime is high we may have two events, each with a probability of .002. Then the surprise value is about 5.4 > 3.

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