Is More Information Always Better?

Sex-offender registration laws, known collectively and colloquially as “Megan’s Law,” frequently impose registration and public notification requirements on citizens who have been convicted of various sex crimes. The defenses of these laws usually hinge on a claimed high recidivism rate of sex offenders, coupled with the position that people in a community have a right to protect themselves and their children from risky neighbors.

Critics of the measures usually invoke what Robin has been calling an “unseen bias used to justify a seen bias.” They claim that people in a community are likely to discriminate against known convicted sex offenders along most or all dimensions of life, and that this discrimination, apart from being unjust on its own, may actually make it harder for those criminals to rehabilitate and become productive and law-abiding members of society. These problems, say critics, justify creating a “bias” by keeping the costs of acquiring this information high for the public.

These laws may offer an angle on the unseen bias/seen bias question more generally. It seems to me that the critics of Megan’s Law are right, for at least the following reasons:

– People economize on information. Those who view information about a neighbor’s sex crimes as more valuable than foregone information can be expected to visit the website, look through the newspaper listings, etc. But copious psychological research has documented that people greatly overestimate dangers from uncontrolled sources and from unnatural sources. (This white paper sums much of it up.) Accordingly, people can be expected to overestimate the safety benefits of knowing who is a sex offender, and accordingly over-acquire sex offender information. The opportunity cost for this information is real, fine-grained information about individuals, and the likely result is that convicted sex offenders will be subject to a level of social exclusion greater than would be justified by a rational estimate of their risk against the possible benefits from interacting with them.

– There has in fact been some astonishing discrimination against convicted sex offenders. One particularly dramatic example will suffice: residency restrictions have been enacted prohibiting offenders from living within a given (large) number of feet of schools, day care facilities, video arcades, and numerous other places. One court found that Iowa’s law forbade offenders from living in 77% of the state’s housing units — and pretty much everywhere except on farms. (Source: Prawfs.) I think most reasonable people would agree that barring someone from 77% of the residences in a state is prima facie an irrationally over-fearful response to these dangers. (If nothing else, it seems pretty clear that anyone who is dangerous enough to be kept out of three-fourths of the state is also dangerous enough to be kept in prison, or at least civilly committed.) But there’s a lot of this — in addition to legislative disabilities, these offenders are evicted, fired from jobs, and so forth, and not just when their housing or their job involves work with children or other vulnerable populations.

Here, as in (I strongly suspect) many other cases, the “unseen bias” isn’t so hard to see after all, if we bother to open our eyes.

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  • Paul, the claim that “people greatly overestimate dangers from uncontrolled sources and from unnatural sources,” and therefore should be prevented from learning about all danger from such sources, seems way too broad a claim to be established in one throwaway comment and one link to a pretty non-technical paper. That paper just says one study found people are more concerned about risks they do not personally control. It doesn’t show they overweigh these; maybe they under weigh the others. And the paper offers no data about unnatural dangers.

    Would you really endorse a policy of forbidding info about all risks people don’t personally control, or that are unnatural? Aren’t sex offenders as natural a danger as they come? Let’s please try to go through this line of argument more slowly and carefully.

  • Paul Gowder

    Robin, seriously — the linked paper is just a useful summary that cited several more technical ones. Surely the readers here are capable of looking through through the references. The overweighting of salient, dramatic, and uncontrolled risks (particularly unnatural causes of death, etc.) is an established result that has been repeated over and over again. See in particular almost any paper by Sarah Lichtenstein or Paul Slovic. Do we really need a literature review on this?

    Also, the differences between sex offenders and “all risks people don’t personally control” is almost comically obvious. Like the fact that there has actually been a lot of extreme and hysterical response to sex offenders. Or the fact that sex offenders, unlike other sources of uncontrolled risk, are human beings (albeit evil ones) with some claim on not being the victim of irrationally overprotective segregation? Or the evident possibility that said segregation creates a feedback loop that actually increases public risk?

  • ZMan


    * It should be MANDATORY that anyone in prison get therapy, and out of prison, if needed. Therapy does work. If you just lock them up, when they get out, they will be worse off. Therapy teaches people how to not act out and help, regardless of what the general public thinks. Just ask a therpist.

    * We need to STOP this hysteria and get sex offenders the help they need.

    * You can pass all the laws you want but without therapy and this “mob” mentality will not solve anything!

    * I am sick of politicians using children to get their laws passed! Who would want to vote against anything that is “for the children”?

    * If the sex offender laws are kept, why discriminate? If sex offenders must suffer for life and be on GPS, so should ANYONE with a criminal record. If this is not done, then it is discrimination. Anyone with a criminal record should be on a registry on the internet for the whole world to see, and be on GPS for life. DUI offenders should not be able to live XX feet from an alcohol store and should have their license revoked. Drug dealers should not be able to live XX feet from anywhere children congregate, so they cannot sell our kids drugs. Murderers should not be able to life XX feet from ANYONE, since they may kill again. DUI offenders kill more people than any other crime (I believe), and I’m sure the entire public would love to know if a murderer, thief, drug dealer, etc lives in their neighborhood. If all this was on the internet for all to see, I’m sure everyone would NOT leave their house at all. These people are everywhere. Why are sex offenders being “scape goated”? EVERYONE WITH A CRIMINAL RECORD SHOULD OBIDE BY THE SAME LAWS SEX OFFENDERS HAVE TO OR IT’S DISCRIMINATION!!

    * “Buffer Zones” are a false sense of security!

    * “Buffer Zones” are banishing people from their town, state, and possibly the country!

    * “Buffer Zones” create homelessness, which costs society lost productivity, individual dignity, and creates additional problems for enforcing any accurate registry!

    * “Buffer Zones” do nothing, except banish! It could be 50 miles and if someone wanted to re-offend, they’d just get in a car and drive!

    * These laws protect nobody!

    * “Stranger Danger” is a smoke screen & hype! Most child sexual offenses occur by someone the child knows, like a family member or close friend!

    * These laws are being passed by politicians using sex offenders as scape goats, for votes!

    * Registries do NOT protect anyone or prevent crimes!

    * Registries are punishing sex offenders as well as their families and children, and opening them up to vigilantism. DON’T THE FAMILIES AND CHILDREN OF SEX OFFENDERS COUNT? They are suppose to be “for the children”, right?

    * Registries are NOT being updated in a timely fashion, so the public is getting false information! How is this helping the public or protecting them when they cannot rely on them?

    * Registries are putting families and children of sex offenders in a public position to be socially outcast and discriminated against with regard to employment, housing, schooling, etc!

    * About 90% of the people on the registry are NOT sexual predators or pedophiles that these laws were for in the first place!

    * These laws cost millions, if not billions to enforce, and they cause prison over-population, which is already a problem, especially in California! AND TAX PAYERS PAY FOR ALL THIS!

    * GPS does not prevent sexual crimes! Another false sense of security which cost tons of money! Plus they are suppose to pay for this, which will eventually go homeless. MAKE THE TAX PAYERS WHO WANT THESE LAWS TO PAY FOR THEM!

    * These laws cause sex offenders to go underground and into hiding, due to the strict nature of the laws! How is this protecting anyone?

    * These laws are all abount money for law enforcement and votes for politicians. Prison is a business! Politicians are salaried and want elected/re-elected! Law enforcement get paid for people in jails, prisons or on the registry!

    * These laws blatantly disregard the United States constitutional rights of all citizens! (i.e. ex-post facto, due process & others)

    * These laws are cruel and unusual punishment! A sex offender cannot go to a fast food restaurant which has a playground! Why? We have just as must of a right as you to get a burger! Plus they cannot go anywhere kids congregate, which is endless (i.e. Amusement parks, Movie theaters, the list is endless)

    * Sex offenders can go to church, but must leave immediately afterwards. If a sex offender owns a business and someone decides to put a church or school next door, they have to now sell their business and move. This is not right, move the church or school, the sex offender was there first!

    * These laws continue to punish people even after a sentence has been served, and they are trying to get on with their lives! (i.e. ex-post facto)

    * These laws are driven by fear-mongering, opportunistic politicians and will do nothing to actually protect children!

    * There are over one million women and children whose lives are inter-twined with a sex offender in the United Stated. They should matter too!

    * Follow the money trail, these laws are conveyor-belt laws to benefit law enforcement! They get paid for the number of people in jail, prison or on the registry!

    * They are currently a one-size-fits all for sex offenders! Not all sex offenders are predators or pedophiles that these laws are suppose to be for anyway!

    * They are modern day witch hunts and a scarlett letter!

    * If Sex Offenders are re-offending, why does the registries grow each day? Because new people are being added daily for stuff like “public urination”, “mooning”, “concensual sex”, “young children playing ‘Doctor'” and various other minor offenses that we need not worry about. We need to worry about predators & pedophiles!

    * Now they are trying to make it a law that a sex offender, if they have kids, cannot “take a picture” of anyone under 18. This is totally stupid! Can’t even take Christmas pictures, birthday pictures, etc!

    * Also, because a sex offender owns a business in town, many people are trying to get the business shut down! The sex offender had the business for awhile. If you don’t like it, MOVE!!!!

    * The Nazi’ did this back when Hitler was in power, with the Jews, Turks, etc.

    * The thing about pedophiles not being able to take pictures of kids is stupid. You’d better shred any pictures you have of your kids when they were babies, like diaper changing, baths, etc.

  • Ryan

    Not a bad point. With few exceptions I feel no mercy for sex offenders, and I doubt we have the ability currently to rehabilitate them.

    Still, what practical good DOES it do to know one is living in your neighborhood?

    In my view, the mistake is to let them out of prison or hospitals in the first place. If however we are going to let them out, it seems unfair to have them so publically branded.

  • Paul Gowder

    Zman: I think your points might be more convincing if you kept them a little shorter and less exclamatory, with fewer characterizations, Hitler comparisons, etc.

    In general: one way to think about the difference between sex offenders (and people subject to racial terrorist profiling, etc.) and other risks is in terms of externalities. If I over-protect against the risk of getting into a plane crash by driving everywhere, I don’t externalize too many of the costs of my poor risk estimation. On the other hand, if I over-protect against the risks posed by sex offenders or Arabs, I impose many of the costs on others. That might make the latter a uniquely fit subject for public intervention.

  • Paul, if you are going to claim that biases against sex offenders are more than biases against typical risks outside of our control, then yes we’d like some data to support that claim. And yes, we want a more careful review than throwing out the name of an author we are all free to look up.

  • Curt Adams

    Robin, the concern is not that people should be prevented from looking for information about sex offenders, it’s that the state shouldn’t make special efforts to provide that information to everybody in the country.

    I think the bias here is not general biases about rare events but rather than many Americans become totally irrational about anything involving sex and children (are things similarly insane in Europe?). This is the country where a Congressional Representative breaks down in tears over her children catching a 1 second glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple. I guess her children were bottle-fed. “Sex offender” refers to anybody who had sex involved in their crime and is applied very broadly – grope somebody at work, and you’re basically barred from legally interacting with children for the rest of your life. Even if you think these draconian restrictions are appropriate for true child molesters, it should be obvious you don’t apply them to people who are *not* child molesters – but sex and children are involved and so up goes the “think of the children!” cry and few think about reality.

    The residency restrictions are a separate problem from the information/registration issue. You could have either without the other. California has just passed a law even more draconian than Iowa’s – now “sex offenders” are pretty much barred from living in urban areas of California. If this law gets enforced women and children should probably avoid farms and undeveloped land, which will have a very high concentration of true child molesters protected by a much larger group of isolated outcast “sex offenders” with a big and justified grudge against society.

    At the same time, I have no idea what the remedy should be. The California residency restrictions passed overwhelmingly by referendum. The legislature can’t override and while the courts used a clever interpretation to prevent it applying to offenses prior to the referendum that merely delays the effect. They don’t dare oppose such a popular law. What to do? Stay out of the woods, I guess.

  • An expert on Abusers

    This is what we need now, enough coddling of these offenders. We need to protect our oved ones and stop giving offenders all the rights, Sex Offender Legislation “Wish List”
    1- GPS and lifetime supervision/treatment Law The failure of today’s solutions regarding sexual offenders is because we are stuck in the strategy of “public notification” rather than “controlling offenders”. The current model puts the burden on parents rather than offenders, and makes the wrong people work to prevent abuse. Remotely (GPS) knowing where an offender is at all times throughout his lifetime can help to prevent that offender from creating new cases of sexual abuse.
    2- Include all known offenders in the management plan-for life. It is wrong to include just those under supervision since the Meagan’s Law was written. People do not ever age out of this behavior so why an old is charge less important than a new charge. Sexual offences are the most under reported crimes (according to the FBI). The fact that a molester has not been arrested recently does not necessarily means he has not offended. In my opinion all offenders should be included in any plan, regardless of when their offense occurred. I believe some states have done this already.
    3- Put all offenders , levels I, II or III on the website . I believe Florida does this. The leveling tool is very poor and pedophiles often end up with only a level I because they did not use force, and they superficially complied with treatment. The way the leveling system works pedophilic “groomers” who do not use force (and are the most busy of all offenders with hundreds of victims) are often not level III’s and therefore are able to have their offense relatively unknown. In New York for example offenders can lawyer up and reduce the “level” they get at their hearing. Molesters can assert they are “non violent”, “sober”, ect, and get the “points” reduced or get the judge to “override” the scale. Currently the public notification system is failing. All offenders of all levels should be on the website.
    4- “Victim Shield Law”. As you know one of the few protections we offer rape victims is “Rape shield laws”, in order to at least try and prevent a rape victim’s sexual history from being put on trial rather than the rapist. In child sexual abuse cases there are no “Rape shield laws” to prevent the victim, or the victim’s family (often the mother) from being made the center of negative attention. In the past defense lawyers for rapists would portray rape victims as promiscuous, today child molester’s lawyers portray victims and victim’s mothers as manipulative, litigious, unreliable, angry, mentally ill, sociopathic, medicated, or undedicated. Because we as a society love to blame women, especially mothers, molesters have been able to harness the misogyny in our culture in order to escape responsibility for their offences. Like the old rape cases that would revolve around the victims sexual past, today molester cases revolve around a child or a mother’s real or fictional problems instead of the focus of attention being the sexual abuse committed by the offender. I do not know if there can ever be a “victim shield law” to prevent the victim/victim’s mother being put on trial rather than the molester, but I know it would help victims avoid being re-traumatized in the system and help society hold sexual offenders accountable. One of the things to always remember with offenders is they are control seekers, and will take any opportunity to attack rather than just defend. They feel entitled to their behavior and see being held accountable as an injustice they are being forced to suffer, and they have zero guilt in harming any number of people (even their children) in order to escape the consequences they deserve.
    5- Plea deals down to “Endangering the welfare of a minor”. Despite the underlying behavior being the sexual abuse of children offenders are often given convictions that hide the nature of their behavior. When this happens offenders can get employment that gives them access to children, offenders are not on the State Sex Offender Registry. The other consequence to their being given non-sexual charges is that it cuts their supervision time in half. Misdemeanor sex offences carry 6 years probation supervision but “Endangering the welfare of a minor” carries only three. I feel the law should be changed so offenders cannot be given non-sexual abuse charges.
    6- Make “Endangering the welfare of a minor” registerable , if the judge feels it was a sexually motivated crime. The registry is to narrow and limited as to what crimes can be registered. Laws be changed so “endangering the welfare of a minor” is registerable when the behavior or motivation was sexual.
    7- “Standardized” conditions for those on sex offender probation. Right now offenders with good lawyers can get specific (or all) sex offender conditions removed from their sexual offender conditions of probation. This means that sexual offenders are on probation but are allowed to drink alcohol, work with children, have computers, go to bars, and do other things that will create a higher risk for the community. I feel there should be a “Statewide Sex Offender Conditions of Probation” that conditions cannot be removed from (but conditions can be added to suite the offenders issues).
    8- Sexual Offender Contraband law- Strangely it is legal for sexual offenders off probation to own all kinds of things such as handcuffs, police lights, spy cameras, and software to make their internet behavior more anonymous.
    9- Sex Offender use of technology law- When bank robbers use technology such as wearing body armor the penalties are increased, why are sex offender allowed to use any technology without added consequences. Offenders choose the internet because it allows greater access to children and greater anonymity. They should be punished for use of technology to harm a child. (technology such as Computers, digital cameras, webcams, ect)
    10- “Secrecy Bind Law” The offender getting his victim to not report the crime he committed should be a separate crime that he suffers added consequences for. The pain that a victim suffers because the offender threatened, tricked, or manipulated the victim into silence should be seen as a separate and deserving of added consequences.
    11- “Parental Alienation Syndrome” is a pseudo syndrome that is being used to get offenders off the hook by saying (incorrectly) that sexual abuse allegations come from a manipulative ex- playing head games with a child rather than because the child was actually molested. This “Parental Alienation Syndrome” is not a legitimate disorder, has not been subjected to peer review, has been ignored for 20 years by the APA, AMA, NASW, ECT because it is just a sophisticated way to say your wife is crazy and turned everyone against you.

  • Paul Gowder

    Robin, I’m not making any claims about the relative degree of overestimation of sex offender risks versus other uncontrolled, salient, and scary risks. Sex offenders are special because there are concrete examples of the serious costs of those risk estimates, which are likely higher than other kinds of uncontrolled risks. I think you misunderstand the structure of my claim, which is as follows:

    1. People tend to over-estimate the danger from uncontrolled, salient, and scary risks, including injury from unnatural causes (the literature, especially the authors noted).

    2. Sex offenders an excellent example of that sort of risk, because they are an a very uncontrolled, salient, and scary risk, posing injury from unnatural causes (axiomatic).

    3. We have some reason to believe that there have in fact been irrational reactions to overestimated sex offender risk. These irrational responses have serious consequences when they involve injury to actual human beings (examples noted).

    4. The example of sex offenders should thus give us pause, not only about that particular policy, but about policies in general that enable excessive estimates of risk to be made about human beings. The sex offender example allows us to see the sort of previously unseen bias that might be at work in those cases too (1, 3).

    We can easily replace “sex offenders” with “Arabs” and the argument goes through just as well. In fact, the argument probably goes through a lot better, since a much smaller proportion of Arabs is dangerous. Also, it invites inclusion of a whole new line of psychological research: terror management theory, and specifically the finding that mortality salience increases fear of outsider groups. Offhand (and I’m reading this from a previous citation of my own, so apologies if the specific reference is off), see Pyszczynski, Solomon & Greenberg, In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, (American Psychological Association Books, 2002) and the study reported at pages 72-77 therein.

  • Curt, I agree that to the extent we go more trouble to inform people about risks from sex offenders, compared to other risks, we would need more of a justification to do so.

    Paul, you want to draw the conclusion that we should be wary of informing people about risks from each other because people are too eager to draw negative conclusions about each other. This claim just does not follow from the correlations that people are more averse to risks that they do not control, are salient, and unnatural.

    People are very natural, and so is sex. We’d want to see that people are too averse to certain risks, not just more averse than to other risks. And unless you want to avoid telling people about all salient risks they do not control, you have to say why telling people about risks from other people is especially bad.

  • Paul Gowder

    No Robin, that’s not my claim at all. My claim is not that people overestimate risks from other people.

    The first part of my claim is that people estimate the likelihood of loss from certain kinds of risks (salient, uncontrolled, unnatural, scary ones) higher than their actual likelihood, with the classic example being that people think the risk from things like murder is much higher than it is.

    The second part of my claim is that the consequences of that overestimation are extra high where the overestimated risk is posed by other people.

    Imagine a function for the expected cost of bad judgments, where C = cost, R = probability of making an error, and I = injury from an error. C=RI. My claim is that salient, scary, and unnatural risks have a higher R than unnatural risks, and that risks posed by humans have a higher I than risks posed by non-human risks. Information posing a risk of bad judgments is bad when C is higher than the net benefit to be gained by self-protection.

    The first part of my claim establishes that R is non-zero. The second part establishes that I is non-zero, and that and I is higher where the risk is about other people. Therefore, “telling people about risks from other people is especially [likely to be] bad” when compared to telling people about risks about asteriods or lightning or mechanical failures or their own mistakes.

  • Carl Shulman


    Driving rather than flying is actually a fairly costly instance of cognitive bias. Unless 9/11 type events killing all passengers on planes become monthly occurrences, the chance of death per mile travelled will be greater driving than flying ( Nonetheless air travel numbers dropped by 18% after the attacks, and to the extent that this is not simply a reaction to the inconvenience of heightened airport security, but aimed at safety, it is mistaken. In addition, there are the externalities of pollution, congestion, and most importantly the damage suffered by other drivers one collides with.

    Turning that argument around, if the targets of racial profiling have reduced air travel in favour of road trips by more than the general population that may be one of the most costly impacts of profiling for them.

  • Paul, I guess your argument is now clearer, but I can’t seem to find where you argue that the injury from overestimating risks about people is higher than the injury from overestimating other risks.

  • Paul Gowder

    You’re right, that could (should) have been made more explicit. I meant for the Iowa example to highlight both the reality of the overestimation and the special human costs.

  • Paul, it is not at all obvious to me that Iowa is overreacting. And even if it were, that would not show higher than normal costs of overreaction.

  • Paul Gowder

    Robin, it seems like such a sweeping measure is highly suggestive of overreaction on its face, but we can certainly look more closely. Presumably the imputs that would go into a determination of the appropriate post-prison restrictions for a class of criminal are the risk of recidivism and the severity of the injury. Taking the latter first, sex offenses include both extremely high severity injuries (child molestation, rape), and relatively low severity ones (flashing). Taken together, another sex offense is a more severe injury than most crimes, but a less severe injury than some (murder, kidnapping, etc.). On the recidivism rate, there is quite a lot of conflictual evidence, but the best I found when looking through Bureau of Justice Statistics reports is that sex offenders have a 5.3% rearrest rate for additional sex crimes within 3 years. By contrast, the rearrest rate for other felons for sex crimes is 1.3%. That seems like a large difference, but it doesn’t take into account the risk of committing other crimes. For that, sex offenders come out ahead: 43% of sex offenders were rearrested for any felony or serious misdemeanor within three years, while the relevant percentage is 67.5% for non-sex offenders. (Obviously, a lot more could and should be done with these data.)

    The point of all that is that it’s not clear that sex offenders pose a much greater threat than other serious criminals. It’s possible, but the conclusive evidence is not there. But sex offenders do get a much more draconian set of protective measures. There’s a mismatch between the empirically substantiated risk and the response.

    As for the human costs, well, can you imagine being exiled to a farm for the rest of your life?

  • Paul, most people feel far too free to accuse others of bias, which lets them justify their own biases as correcting for the biases in others. To overcome this cycle, we must impose a higher standard on what we will call biases. Pointing to two things that are treated differently and saying it isn’t clear to you why seems to me way too low a standard.

  • Paul Gowder

    I agree that merely pointing to two things that are treated differently is too low a standard. But what about when there is a readily available known bias to explain the difference? It seems to me that the argument “X is a well-known type of bias that could cause Y, and Y has in fact happened with no other obvious rational explanation” is sufficient to make out a prima facie case of bias.

  • nick

    The biggest problem with sex offender registeries is they tell us very little. The great majority of offenders are not strangers. They know their victims usually family members. Tell us exactly what a person did to become an offender. I know of one many who took photos of kids at track meets….no nudity no sex yet he is a registered sex offender. I should not have to worry aboutt this guy. Tell me when the offense took place, how, what happened, how long as he been out without a problem,did he undergo therapy and was it successful and how old is he. The older a person get the less likely they are to repeat.But yet politicians love to scare us all with bogus information. And we keep voting them back in