Bryan Caplan  

The Fear Budget Hypothesis

Bipartisanship or Irreconcilab... Speaking on Job Creation...
Last night in my graduate Public Choice class, Peter Twieg suggested that people have a fixed mental budget of fear to allocate.  An implication, I suggested, is that non-terrorist fears would decline right after 9/11. 

Today I checked.  At least for crime, the "fear budget" hypothesis checks out.  From a long-running Gallup survey:
Notice: Fear of crime fell a month after 9/11, and reached a twenty-year minimum in October, 2002.  The evidence is hardly iron-clad - fear was on a downward trend for years before - but it's still pretty striking.

Anyone got any other evidence for or against the fear budget hypothesis?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Fabio!!! writes:

Is this related to attention budgets? Maybe fear is dependent on attention, so it's possible for events to crowd out each other.

agnostic writes:

At my pay blog, I showed that fear tracks the crime rate with about a two-year lag. Fear was high during the '80s but started falling in the mid-'90s, about 2 years after the crime rate started falling.

The reason you don't see that in the graph above is that they asked about the country as a whole -- and what do people know about that? The GSS question I used asked whether there are places in their neighborhood where they're afraid to walk alone at night (FEAR). Better measure of fear in the relevant sense, it seems.

agnostic writes:

Clarification: the graph above shows a decline after the fall in crime, but then it trends up again in the 2000s. The GSS question shows steady decline, not a bizarre reversal in the 2000s.

agnostic writes:

Looking at broader cultural trends, there are all sorts of indicators that people were scared during the most recent crime wave and have become steadily less afraid since crime started falling:

1) No more good horror movies, especially slasher ones. They're still made, just not scary.

2) Hardly any movies are based on how horrible the world is getting, and that only vigilantes or loose cannon policemen can clean things up. If people were as pessimistic about crime as the graph implies, there would be demand for movies like Taxi Driver, RoboCop, Lethal Weapon, etc. again.

3) Same as 2, but for video games. Every cool arcade and home game out in the late '80s and early '90s was a beat 'em up where crime is out of control and vigilantes are going to rid the city of gang domination. Double Dragon, Final Fight, Streets of Rage, etc.

4) Young people don't tell each other scary urban legends anymore, and haven't even heard of most of the old ones. (I did an informal poll at my blog; ask your undergrad students in class.) Why spend time, mental resources, etc. on such things when you don't perceive a pay-off in terms of better navigating the scary world out there? (Ditto for why no good horror movies.)

You get the point. If people really were as afraid as before, there'd be a thriving market for all the things above, as there used to be (even if there were no medium of exchange, as with spreading urban legends).

Now that the public space has become cleaner and safer, people have reallocated this part of their fear budget to the personal space -- freaking out about their kids' safety, the food they eat, and so on.

Doc Merlin writes:

I have no problem with the fear budget hypothesis, except to say maybe its not just fear, there may be other emotions that also tie in to the budget?

Part of it is there is only so much one can pay attention to at once.

Maybe the initial fall had to do with the decline, then the secondary rise had to do with an increase in the distribution in crime, while it was falling? No real evidence to back it up, just a hypothesis.

Tom Lee writes:

The "fear budget" may explain the rather abrupt resumption of the "Iranian threat" by the Obama Administration. Polls suggest that people were terrified that Obamacare was going to leave them either without insurance, subject to death panels, or with huge new bills to pay. This component of the fear budget is perhaps even bigger than angst over bailouts in the rise of the Tea Party. The Administration would like us to be afraid of rather a tiny government overseas rather than the huge one ready to pounce into our affairs.

Loof writes:

Bryan asks:
Anyone got any other evidence for or against the fear budget hypothesis?

An alternate hypothesis might be massive psychological projection fixated by fear, vented anger and criminal activity abroad, which relieved the fear in the perception of crime at home. If not proof, parallel evidence might be in the world’s perception of Uncle Sam for the same period, if opposite: lower, then higher, and now a lower, worldwide perception of US criminal activity abroad.

Eric writes:

Reminds me of Will Self's "Quantity Theory of Insanity" short story.

And it does seem like its related to attention. More terrorism news stories = less crime news stories.

Loof writes:

The pseudo-scientific hypothesis is an example of Quantity Theory of Sanity meant to expose the insane state made up of, for and by mad people.

tobi writes:

I think I see a fear stimulus. We were in a fear slump, but 9/11 provided a massive fear stimulus and crime fear is on the rise again.

Comparing fear to fluctuations in the crime rate (as an earlier poster had done) would tell you whether or not we are now in a fear bubble and that the natural rate of fear is different from the fear rate of fear.

Yancey Ward writes:

Well, this is nothing new to those seeking power- they understand it on an instinctual level.

HH writes:

Great evidence for a "fear budget," though I'll second Doc above and say that the mental budget probably involves far more than just fear. I was first going to suggest that we have a limited amount of mental attention altogether, so that all things have to compete for "market share," if you will. But the more I think about it, the more I'd say that there are a few mental modules, each of which as a limited attention span, if you will. For example, physical security would be one, and crime/terror would compete over that. [Natural disaster might, too, though I'd bet that something other people do is handled vastly differently in the brain than something 'nature' does.]

Bill Conerly writes:

It's quite possible that the fear budget is constant for each individual, but I'm sure that it varies widely from person to person. Some people seem to just WANT to see bad things coming at them.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top