Gun violence and negativity bias in the Information Age

Listen to news reports or scan headlines, and you’ll see stories of shootings daily.  Google is glad to set up an alert for you, if you want your in-box filled.  This flood of information contributes to the impression that many hold that gun violence is increasing.  A 2013 Pew Center report found that around half of people surveyed believe that gun crimes have increased over the last two decades, despite the reality that the trend has been the opposite—that violence involving firearms have been on the decline.

The “if it bleeds, it leads” emphasis in the news media feeds into a characteristic of human psychology called negativity bias.  This concept is explained succinctly in a paper titled, “Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion,” by Paul Rozin and Edward B. Royzman of the University of Pennsylvania:  “Brief contact with a cockroach will usually render a delicious meal inedible. The inverse phenomenon—rendering a pile of cockroaches on a platter edible by contact with one’s favorite food—is unheard of.”  Concentration on the bad instead of the good is predictable in a species that grew up having to avoid poisonous plants and large predators in the Great Rift Valley of Africa.  Missing out on something tasty or otherwise pleasant is unfortunate, but not nearly as much a disaster as getting eaten for not recognizing a threat.  In our current state of civilization, however, so much of what we process daily is virtual or abstract, rather than an immediate interaction in the physical world.  We have the time to contemplate information before leaping to a conclusion about it, though doing so requires getting past the limitations of our prehistoric brains.

One way around the negativity bias is to remember that, as the saying goes, the plural of anecdote isn’t data.  Fluctuations in data are also not automatically a trend.  An illustration of this is the claim made about homicide rates in Missouri after repeal in 2007 of the requirement to have a license to purchase when buying a handgun.  The murder rate in that state has moved about between 8.1 and 5.0 per hundred thousand over the last twenty years, but coming for the most part at a rate between six and seven.  Incautious reporting took a temporary rise from 2007 to 2008 as evidence that loosening gun laws is a bad thing to do, but the average of homicide rates from 2008 to 2014 is the same as that of the years 1996 to 2007, reminding us that we have to look at lots of data over time to reach supportable conclusions.

It’s up to those of us who care about gun rights to tell the news media to give a broader picture of what’s really going on with regard to gun crimes.  Homicides were much more common in years gone by, but today we are able to know the events of big cities, small towns, and isolated rural communities all at once.  Any shooting anywhere can grab the headlines, creating the sense that violence is far more common than it actually is.  But the overall trend is downward, and journalists ought to include that perspective in reporting on gun crimes.  Just as the flow of information is easier now, so is the ability to respond.  When an article or broadcast leaves out context, the audience can comment, insisting on accuracy.  This is also true about stray remarks on social media in which a gun control advocate claims we’re in greater danger than we were in the past.

The case for gun rights is based on the facts, contrary to what our opponents want us to believe, and we have to make that case.  Be informed and then be active.  The argument won’t make itself.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of