Growing up, on Halloween, my parents and seemingly every adult within a 20 mile radius instructed me and my friends to only ever eat prepackaged candy. Cookies or other baked goods might have shards of glass or razor blades baked in them by some nefarious neighbor. Our neighbors just can’t be trusted, I remember thinking to myself. When my parents were young, they could trust their neighbors. But the world just isn’t what it was anymore.
This is, of course, yet another iteration of the “nowadays” language that pervades our society. We perceive the world as growing worse, more dangerous, and less prosperous. But in reality it is often simply that our brains are wired to perceive the past as more comforting and idyllic than the present.
In fact, this perception is so strong that we often even perceive the world as getting worse even when it is actually demonstrably improving.
Since 1972, Gallup has polled Americans on whether they believe crime in their area is increasing. In 26 of the 32 polls conducted, a greater proportion of respondents reported that they believe crime was indeed getting worse. Since 1989, Gallup has polled Americans on whether crime in the U.S. as a whole is getting worse. In 26 of 27 polls, a larger proportion of respondents reported that they believed crime was worsening, with a majority of respondents believing it was worsening (as opposed to improving or staying the same, 25 of 27 times).
What’s most striking about this is that crime statistics from both the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Justice Statistics paint a starkly different picture. Over that span, according to BJS, violent crime in the U.S. has decreased drastically, from around 80 violent crimes per 1,000 people age 12 or older in 1993 down to around 15 in 2015. That’s a roughly 75% drop in less than three decades.
Similarly, there has never been any actual evidence of a widespread problem with dangerous Halloween candy. This has been thoroughly debunked as an urban myth. And yet, it feels true to so many of us. And many of us continue to live by this belief and build our worldviews around it.
Many of us are utterly convinced things are getting worse, even as they get better. We move ever toward the horizon and feel ourselves spinning further and further away.