Thursday, January 27, 2011

If You Don't Know Me, Then I Must Be a Pervert

I came across this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal lamenting the fact that we now seem to treat all unknown men as potential predators of children. Lenore Skenazy of the always hilarious Free-Range Kids blog opens the piece thusly:

Last week, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Timothy Murray, noticed smoke coming out of a minivan in his hometown of Worcester. He raced over and pulled out two small children, moments before the van's tire exploded into flames. At which point, according to the AP account, the kids' grandmother, who had been driving, nearly punched our hero in the face.
Why?
Mr. Murray said she told him she thought he might be a kidnapper.
And so it goes these days, when almost any man who has anything to do with a child can find himself suspected of being a creep. I call it "Worst-First" thinking: Gripped by pedophile panic, we jump to the very worst, even least likely, conclusion first. Then we congratulate ourselves for being so vigilant.
I can't say that I feel that I've been the subject of this kind of negative attention, but then again, perhaps I'm just oblivious to it. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that 90% of child sexual abuse is perpetuated by people who know the child or are related to the child; only about 10% is perpetuated by strangers.

So, statistically, men are actually a much greater danger to your child if your child knows them or is related to them than if they are a stranger, but yet people persist in being terrified of strange men. My guess is that this arises from some combination of cognitive biases, e.g. the availability heuristic (i.e. it is easy to imagine a stranger abusing a child, but not a friend or relative), the confirmation bias (i.e. the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions), the ingroup bias (i.e. the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others they perceive to be members of their own groups), the affect heuristic (i.e. basing a decision on an emotional reaction rather than a calculation of risks and benefits), and perhaps others. Check out Wikipedia's Big List of Cognitive Biases and come up with your own explanation!

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