Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Crime has become a mind game

The older I get, the more I realise how complicated - even mysterious - the world is. When I was young I tried to keep everything straightforward, concrete and logical. Then I realised the direct effects of some action can sometimes be overshadowed by its indirect effects.

Accountants and economists, as you've no doubt realised, tend to evaluate things in monetary terms. And there's no denying money is important - even to those who profess to have a soul above it.

But when you boil it down, money is important because of its power to affect how we feel. And not everything we feel can be converted to monetary terms. Unfortunately, our tendency to focus on the concrete and easily measured means we often neglect things that, while intangible, are important to our well-being.

Fortunately, economists are coming to realise this. Take crime. Why do we worry so much about it? Well, it does lead to monetary loss, including all the expense we run to as individuals and a community to protect ourselves from loss. And crime can lead to physical injury too, of course.

As a community, we - and our media - devote a lot more attention to crime than we used to. As part of this there's a lot more concern for the welfare of the victims of crime. We're more inclined to agree they should be compensated and we listen sympathetically as they take to the airwaves demanding vengeance against the perpetrators.

But has it occurred to you that the suffering of the wider community may exceed that of the victims? Or that crime's greatest cost may be to our mental well-being rather than our physical health or our pocketbooks?

By the standards of developed countries, crime rates in Australia are high. In a survey conducted in 2000, a higher share of Australians reported being the victim of a crime in the previous year than in any of the other 16 countries, including the US. By the same token, the level of crime in Australia, particularly property crime, fell quite considerably during the first half of the noughties - a fact that hasn't received as much publicity as our concern about crime would lead you to expect.

Francesca Cornaglia, of the centre for economic performance at the London School of Economics, and Andrew Leigh, formerly a professor of economics at the Australian National University and now a Labor member of federal parliament, have used local data to examine the link between crime and mental well-being in Australia.

They find that victims of property crime (burglary and theft) tend to be slightly better educated, whereas victims of violent crimes (homicide, assault, sexual assault, abduction and robbery) are less well educated.

Being a victim of crime, particularly violent crime, is "strongly and significantly related" to experiencing a deterioration in mental well-being. Victims' social functioning is harmed as emotional problems interfere with normal social activities. And they have difficulties with daily personal activities because of emotional problems.

Victims who are already suffering from mental distress are likely to react more strongly to crime than other people do. And victims are more likely to live in areas with higher crime rates. Victims of violence are particularly likely to experience post traumatic stress disorder, depression, panic and substance abuse. But Cornaglia and Leigh find that the rest of us also suffer a decrease in our mental well-being as a result of an increase in violent crime. The effect on our social functioning is nearly half the effect experienced by the actual victims.

Among all the violent crimes, it's assault, sexual assault and robbery that affect most categories of mental well-being. Although sexual assaults constitute a fairly small proportion of all crime, they have a "sizeable and significant effect" on three of the five components of mental well-being.

So the study finds strong evidence that the costs of crime are mental as well as physical and monetary. It also finds that the cost of violent crime in reducing our mental well-being extends well beyond the victims to the whole of the community.

But when you turn from the victims to the rest of us you turn from the reality to the perception, from the actual experience of crime to the fear of experiencing it. The degree of fear we feel about being a victim of crime can be out of proportion to the statistical risk of us actually becoming a victim.

This means that if media coverage of crime heightens our fear of being a victim beyond the actual risk of it, the media is adding unnecessarily to the decline in our mental well-being. Cornaglia and Leigh find the intensity of media reporting does increase the negative effect on mental well-being.

The media have "turned to crime" in recent decades in their pursuit of commercial advantage and in the no-doubt-correct belief that crime reporting is something their audience wants more of.

But the tabloid press in Britain is discovering the same people who lap up intimate details of the private lives of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims can turn on you when faced with the knowledge of the lengths to which you went to bring them those details.

If feeding the public's fascination with crime - and, in the process, leaving it with an exaggerated perception of the chances of becoming a victim - reduces the public's mental well-being, a day may come when "but that's what you wanted" won't be judged a sufficient excuse.