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May 09, 2023

Why are Americans killing strangers who knock on the wrong door, or yell on the subway?

Psychologists and sociologists say public trust has eroded as fear of violent crime continues to outpace reality

The past few weeks have made one thing clear: Americans can be very afraid of strangers.

On April 11, two teenage cheerleaders were shot in a Texas supermarket parking lot after they tried to get into the wrong car. Two days later, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was shot in Kansas City when he went to the wrong house to pick up his younger brothers. That weekend, 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis was fatally shot in upstate New York when she pulled into the wrong driveway.

In the aftermath of these tragedies, experts and commentators have offered many theories for the shocking violence. Some blame a lack of gun control, which puts lethal weapons in the hands of trigger-happy gun owners. Others point to the racist assumption that Black boys and men are inherently dangerous — Neely, a Black man, was choked to death by a white man, and the white shooter of Yarl, a Black teen, allegedly subscribed to racist conspiracy theories, according to his grandson.

Psychologists and sociologists say these incidents are also bound up in fundamental breakdowns in trust and perceptions of reality, which have been plaguing the U.S. for several years.

"For some time now our country has a problem with trust: trust in the government, trust in our community, the police, each other," Eric Zillmer, a professor of neuropsychology at Drexel University, said via email. "Trust is a basic human condition. It is the basic building block upon how humans interact and form communities, cities, neighborhoods, governments, and indeed entire nations."

As trust has waned, Zillmer said, loneliness also has worsened, exacerbated by the social isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, the U.S. surgeon general issued a first-of-its-kind federal advisory on loneliness, warning that social disconnection can increase the risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety, dementia and premature death. Nearly half of American adults say they struggle with feelings of loneliness, and roughly a third of Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

This is a huge problem not just for individuals, but the wider society they inhabit, for as Zillmer concluded, "anxiety breeds fear."

"We are armed to our teeth and as a nation, we are in a constant psychological state of distrust," he continued. "We doubt ourselves, we are not honest with each other, and as a result there is great polarization, even in our democratic process."

Americans also tend to have incorrect perceptions of crime and the likelihood that they will be attacked. According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, the rate of criminal victimization — or involuntary exposure to crime — has been steadily declining since the 1990s, with less than 1% of people 12 years and older experiencing violent crime in 2021. Yet Gallup polling reveals roughly 50% of Americans worry "a great deal" about crime and another 29% worry about it "a fair amount."

These worries are rooted not in facts but in "the stranger danger myth, a belief that strangers are the most likely people to commit crimes," according to Nicole E. Rader, a sociology professor at Mississippi State University and the author of "Teaching Fear," published earlier this year by Temple University Press.

"Most Americans get their information about crime from the media or from stories they hear from people they know and thus, fear of crime is often out of touch with the reality of victimization," she said via email.

Past FBI reports have shown that violent crime, particularly homicides, are overwhelmingly committed by someone the victim knows. In 2015, for example, the bureau found that strangers were responsible for just 10.2% of homicides. But Rader said certain crime stories tend to be broadcast more frequently in the media, a phenomenon called "looping," where, in her words, "the same crime is shown over and over on a news feed, making the type of crime seem more likely than it is."

False ideas about who perpetrates crime, and who is targeted, are also common. In her book, Rader discussed the "white woman crime myth," a tendency to overestimate the rates of white women experiencing crime. This leads Americans to underestimate the experiences of women and men of color, who are more likely to encounter crime. Those most impacted are usually the poorest, according to Department of Justice data. That makes unhoused people like Neely, Rader argued, particularly vulnerable, since they cannot necessarily avoid areas with higher crime rates.

While these recent shootings and Neely's strangulation are, as the data shows, rare cases themselves, experts say better education and reporting is needed to avoid further tragedies.

"Crime myths drive much of what Americans fear and the safety precautions they take on to prevent crime from happening to them," Rader said. "Accurately educating the public is the best way to combat crime myths. By having more accurate reporting of crime by the media and providing public access to statistics about crime, Americans will be more informed about what they need to fear and what they do not."

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