Why Are We Behaving So Badly?

In his latest New York Times column David Brooks laments at how badly we’re behaving:

In June a statistic floated across my desk that startled me. In 2020, the number of miles Americans drove fell 13 percent because of the pandemic, but the number of traffic deaths rose 7 percent.

I couldn’t figure it out. Why would Americans be driving so much more recklessly during the pandemic? But then in the first half of 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motor vehicle deaths were up 18.4 percent even over 2020. Contributing factors, according to the agency, included driving under the influence, speeding and failure to wear a seatbelt.

Why are so many Americans driving irresponsibly?

While gloomy numbers like these were rattling around in my brain, a Substack article from Matthew Yglesias hit my inbox this week. It was titled, “All Kinds of Bad Behavior Is on the Rise.” Not only is reckless driving on the rise, Yglesias pointed out, but the number of altercations on airplanes has exploded, the murder rate is surging in cities, drug overdoses are increasing, Americans are drinking more, nurses say patients are getting more abusive, and so on and so on.

Yglesias is right.

Mr. Brooks has no explanation for how badly we’re behaving. I’m open to suggestions.

Let me provide a few of the more egregious examples of bad behavior:
Woman kills her child, dumps body
Four guys arguing in shopping mall, start shooting at each other
TikTok challenges encouraging violence (multiple)
Incidents of violence by air passengers (multiple)

I think these people are feral and there are lots and lots of them.

15 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    There is recency bias here. Woman dumps body is an old, old story. People arguing and shooting each other is old. Overall crime, and homicides are well down from their highs last century. Mother vehicle deaths are way down from highs last century.

    For sure, our politics is worse than it has been in a long time. The people paid to keep us angry and divided are good at what they do. That accounts for much of the airlines violence and anger violence towards nurses (its not limited to nurses from first hand experience). A lo too the rest is covid. Some of the unrest may have been inevitable but a to fo that was also driven by politics.


  • Grey Shambler Link

    Covid elicits fear from some, anger from others, political outrage-mongering the same.
    Some segment of the population is so emotional, they don’t care if their actions kill you, or them.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    But you asked why.
    Freedom, man. Freedom is messy without morality, dignity, shame, honor.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    May I suggest the observation of Thucydides, on the Athenian plague.

    “Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property.

    So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.

    As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offenses, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.”

    I suspect he would say similar things about the current situation.

  • Andy Link

    The increase in disruption in society and the economy. And it’s not just covid – covid is just part of a more general upheaval that’s affecting many people in very negative ways.

    Just some possibilities off the top of my head:

    A huge loss of trust in institutions – pretty much all of them.

    A sclerotic federal bureaucracy and a political class that has zero interest in reforming it or making it more effective.

    A political and media elite that seems to live on another planet much of the time

    Worsening political tribalism with rhetoric that is off the charts crazy or divorced from reality. Activists on both sides now openly distrust the election system.

    We’ve got all kinds of economic disruptions that have not affected individuals evenly. A whole lot of careers and lives have been wrecked while others have done very well (I’m thankful to be in that latter category).

    There’s a lot of stress, and that causes some people to behave badly.

    What about the other side of the coin? My sense is there is more at the other extreme as well. I’ve seen a lot more assholes, but I’ve also seen a lot more kindness and generosity – at least in my community. Online it’s a totally different story.

  • Andy Link

    My best friend is, shall we say, a train enthusiast. He sent me this Tweet which came across his feed:


  • What about the other side of the coin? My sense is there is more at the other extreme as well. I’ve seen a lot more assholes, but I’ve also seen a lot more kindness and generosity – at least in my community. Online it’s a totally different story.

    Private benevolence in the sense of donations to organizations has actually decreased.

    CuriousOnlooker: I think the last paragraph of that post is about right.

  • That is ghastly, Andy. Another aspect of the “supply chain disruption”?

  • PD Shaw Link

    In 2010 Peter Turchin claimed that his quantitative historical analysis indicated that the United States would experience a cyclical rise of violence and social instability in the 1920s. Five years ago he was asked to quantify what that meant, and he said that this structural-demographic theory is wrong if from 2020 – 2025, there are fewer than 100 instability events per five years, or fewer than 5 fatalities per 1 million of population per 5 years. Essentially by these metrics worse than around 1970, but not as bad as around 1920.

    I’m not a fan of cyclical theories, but he has defined terms and a falsifiable premise. If vindicated, I assume that important inputs are youth demographics, combined with their diminished socio-economic opportunities, both being ignored by declining institutions.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    declining institutions:
    Isn’t it a failure of Democracy when social disorder doesn’t produce the election of leaders who oppose such disruption?

  • Andy Link

    “Private benevolence in the sense of donations to organizations has actually decreased.”

    I don’t know any national statistics, but that is not the case in my area.

  • steve Link

    I would say that 98% of my interactions and those I see among others are not different than what they are normally. I have had a couple of bad interactions with the anti-vaxxers/covid is a hoax and their families (mostly in the ICU) where I have been asked to help. But, nothing different at stores, restaurants, any place else.

    I have also seen and know some pretty extraordinary acts of personal compassion. Wont show up in charity donations.


  • Grey Shambler Link

    Been thinking about the topic in the occasion of the 600.
    Those 600 who came to the inauguration and engaged in actions that have ultimately impacted their lives in very negative fashion.
    These were people who were military, police, fire department career employees, business owners, doers.
    For the most part they were not homeless, career criminals, addicts looking for a fix.
    They interrupted their lives, paid for travel and accommodations, went to Washington to git’r’done. They are pro-active.

    Scared the H. out of house members who thought they occupied a hallowed space.
    Scared them is all, but that was enough to unleash the forces of Homeland Security, FBI, and more agencies than we even know exist to hunt every one of them down. Somewhere in his garden of virgins, Mohammad Atta is smiling, our government is now more afraid of it’s own.
    And in so doing, they drive home that this is their nation, not ours.
    Do they really think this is a winning strategy?

  • steve Link

    Totally agree now Grey. I have seen the light. In a few minutes I am going to drive out to Harrisburg, break into the capital and smash the place up knowing that you and others like you will support me in my claim that my behavior was not illegal and I should face no consequences.


    Probably not many police around to hit with the flagpole I am taking. Think I should wait until its busier? Maybe Wednesday?


  • Jan Link

    Who gets what is going on?

    Gray ——> 10/10

    Steve——-> 0/10

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