Heuristics and Crime Statistics

Posted: March 6, 2013 in Research
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Heuristic devices, sometimes referred to as “rules of thumb,” are a common way to manage the complexities of daily life. They allow simple information or short-cuts to stand-in for more complex concepts, and they are invaluable in that sense.

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For example, we don’t need to know anything about an area’s zoning laws, planning principles, cultural history, product distribution networks, or economic philosophy to locate and shop at a grocery store. The fact that a business is labeled as a “grocery store” gives us most, if not all, the information we need.

Such short-cuts make life simpler and easier to navigate…for the most part. 

When it comes to some concepts, simple is not always better or even accurate. This is especially true of the over-simplifications we too often see in the reporting of crime data. For example, CQ Press releases an annual list of U.S. cities ranked by crime rate. While their methodology appears sound (it’s essentially a comparison of crime rates per 100,000 citizens), there are limitations to their approach.

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CQ Press Crime Rankings for 2010-2011

As this article points out, interpreting the meaning of a city’s ranking based on crime rate can be misleading. Other factors are at play, such as population density and differences in geography or demographics, which can skew the meaning of a ranking based on crime rate alone.

Other criminologists have pointed out that these types of  crime rankings are often ‘baseless’ due to the inability of a statistic like crime rate to account for rapid fluctuations in the population of a localized area, such as small cities that are actually part of a much larger metropolitan region.  The official population is artificially low relative to the number of people who actually frequent the area from nearby. This, in turn, could artificially inflate the crime rate calculation.

We should interpret such rankings, then, with caution and gather additional information before making decisions about where to live, work, shop, or play based solely on a reported crime rate.

The other take-away is to be careful with heuristics. In general, they can be a helpful guide, but they are not a replacement for thoughtful consideration when it comes to things like crime statistics.

It often pays in those cases to ignore the heuristic benefit of a simplistic ranking and look a little closer at the actual meaning that lies underneath the data.

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