Crime is falling, and nobody knows why

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Crime is falling

Crime fell by 15% in 2013. Results of the British Crime Survey (now called the Crime Survey for England and Wales) show that crime is its lowest point since the survey began in 1981. Falls in some of the categories are striking – household theft is down 25%, overall violence 22%, and vandalism 15%. With a nationally representative sample of 35,000 adults and a response rate of two-thirds this is valid data. Surveys don’t come more robust.

Coverage was broad (see write ups from the BBC, the Telegraph, & Guardian). The common theme was that nobody really knows what is behind the trend. You could almost hear the journalists scratching their heads. I don’t pay close attention to the issue, but even I recall being told that austerity was bound to lead to increased crime: more unemployment and fewer coppers.

Dominic Casciani’s Radio 4 documentary The Crime Conundrum did a good job of exploring the different hypotheses behind falling crime and gave a decent amount of air time to expert testimony. We heard that the trend extends beyond the UK – similar falls have been seen throughout the developed world.  Some of the hypotheses included:

  • Target hardening (I love this phrase) – essentially making things like cars harder to steal
  • The increase in CCTV – putting criminals off
  • Falls in the price of consumer goods – stuff people used to burgle is cheaper & thus not worth nicking
  • An ageing population: i) Younger people commit more crime ii) More interestingly – a greater proportion of older people might have a “calming effect” on the rest of us.
  • The emasculation of society – blokes work in a “have a nice day economy” nowadays – answering phones in call centres rather than forging steel like ‘real men’ did in the 70s
  • The removal of lead from petrol in the 90s – the reduction of toxic lead in the environment correlates with falling crime… Lead poisoning causes damage to development, affecting future behaviour and mood. Some think we only stopped being poisoned around the Major years.

The striking thing was the disagreement amongst the experts. Academics who have devoted entire careers to the issue vehemently disagree. What’s going on?

It’s an important question. Billions of pounds, individual liberty and the very nature of what it feels like to live in the UK are all dependent on government criminal justice policies. We can’t explain why crime is falling even with all the resources of government, the brains of academics and the best data in the world. As Andrew Rawnsley in the Guardian pointed out:

“…lower police numbers have been accompanied by less crime. I am told by sources at the Home Office that, when they compare the performance of different forces, they are struggling to find any correlation between crime rates and constabulary strength. It would be idiotic to extrapolate this to the conclusion that you could have no police officers at all. But it is very uncomfortable for the police to discover that the number of them that are employed seems to bear so little discernible relation to crime.”

It is an uncomfortable feeling, this ‘not knowing why’ business. We could lurch to another miracle catch-all theory and pin our hopes to it. In my view the sensible thing to do is moderate our expectations. It doesn’t matter whether it’s crime or marketing effectiveness, the hours we spend constructing complex models to try and explain patterns in data often fall short. We don’t have all the variables. We don’t know how they influence each other. Big data, big brains & big budgets sometimes mean bugger all.

We should react to this with humility: by acknowledging that our models of reality are only models, not reality itself. We should be more realistic in expectations of what we can – and cannot – control.

Remember the crime conundrum the next time you’re in a brand tracking debrief valiantly linking a media laydown to peaks in brand metrics, awaiting awkward questions from your audience. Others have trodden your path before.

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About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at a communications agency. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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