Despite the number of homicide cases exceeding the annual average over the past four years, the murder rate in Iceland – if viewed within a broader context – has decreased per capita. A criminologist has noted that public perception is often influenced by availability bias.
Availability bias plays a role
With the murder of a man in Hafnarfjörður last weekend, a total of four homicide cases are being investigated by three police stations throughout Iceland. Seven people have died in homicide cases over the past two years.
Although it may be tempting to conclude that homicides in Iceland are on the rise, a criminologist explained to RÚV that murders have decreased per capita.
“So far this year, there have been three homicide cases. There were four people who died last year in three homicide cases. The year before that there were two deaths and in 2020 there were three. If we are only looking at this short period, there are an inordinate number of homicides,” Margrét Valdimarsdóttir, associate professor of sociology who holds a PhD in criminology, told RÚV yesterday.
Margrét noted, however, that if the overall picture is considered, the murder rate is declining. A total of 25 homicide cases occurred between 2012 and 2023 – compared to 28 between 1999 and 2011.
“If we were to look at the last thirty years, there have been two murders on average per year. Since 1990, the population of Iceland has increased by 100,000, and a greater number of tourists visit Iceland every year compared to 20 to 30 years ago. Given this, the number of homicides per capita has actually decreased,” Margrét explained.
Gesturing towards the phenomenon of availability bias (i.e. the human tendency to rely on information that comes readily to mind when evaluating situations or making decisions), Margrét noted that public sentiment was often at the mercy of readily available information:
“I think that feeling is understandable. We are seeing a lot of media coverage on every case. And when there are so many cases in quick succession, it is natural that we feel as if there is a general change happening in society – that we somehow live in a more dangerous society,” she stated.
Grímur Grímsson, Chief Superintendent of the Icelandic Police’s central investigative department, struck a similar note during an interview with RÚV earlier this week: “Historically, Iceland has experienced an average of 1.7 to 1.8 homicide cases per year. Sometimes these incidents cluster together, followed by periods of relative calm. Hence, we do not attribute any particular meaning to this pattern at present.”