2013 December 09 Monday
The Mystery Of Iceland's Low Violent Crime Rate

The police in Iceland have killed a man for the first time in Iceland police history. How can the violent crime rate in Iceland be so low that police use of deadly force hasn't occurred before? An expert confesses to not have a good answer.

Frankly, there is no perfect answer as to why Iceland has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world.

Here are some factors that probably play a role.

First off, the small population of 300k people are closely genetically related. All else equal, people who are genetically related feel more loyalty and a stronger bond to each other. Plus, a small population means there is less anonymity. People are far more likely to know each other. The strange other is a less common experience for people living in Iceland.

The closely genetically related small population have a smaller difference in average income partly because the hierarchy is just not that big. So inequality is less than what is possible in a far larger population. Plus, the level of ability varies over a much smaller range than is the case with a genetically more diverse population. The smaller range of innate ability not only decreases economic inequality but also means that more people think at the same level and so have more common views. A genius and a low IQ person are going to have bigger differences in how they conceptualize the world and what they decide is important. Plus, the country can't have many parallel subcultures.

Iceland is a harsh environment and survivng there required substantial planning cooperation for centuries. It seems likely that the environment selected (both genetically and socially) for attributes that enabled cooperation and pro-social behavior.

We need really cheap genetic sequencing done on a massive scale and correlated with behavior to identify all the potential genetic causes of lower crime. But given the large role that biology plays in causing criminality it seems very likely that biology plays a big role in making Iceland a safer place than almost anywhere in the world.

Iceland undermines one popular simple theory on violence: The 90k of guns owned in the 325k Iceland population isn't leading to much killing. Why is that? Hey Icelanders you are messing up a simple narrative on the evil of guns. How dare you!

At 0.3 murders per 100,000 Iceland is still more dangerous than Hong Kong. But 17 countries or islands have at least 100 times the murder rate of Iceland. In a more rational world the search for root causes would be bigger and faster.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2013 December 09 10:07 PM 

Black Death said at December 10, 2013 10:28 AM:

I've visited Iceland - it's a delightful place. I wasn't aware that there were 90,000 guns - I wonder what they do with them? Speaking of genetics, are you familiar with the Iceland genome project (deCode Genetics)?

Randall Parker said at December 10, 2013 9:15 PM:

Black Death,

deCode Genetics couldn't find a way to make enough money and got bought by Amgen. I think they gathered a lot of genetic data when the cost of doing so was orders of magnitude higher than it is today. Bad move.

J said at December 11, 2013 7:55 AM:

Iceland sagas are full of murder and vengeance. The Vikings have been domesticated. Or all the Nordic sagas and myths are just phantasies.

J said at December 11, 2013 7:57 AM:

Nordic sagas are full of blood. May be it is fantasy of a very peaceful people.

WJ said at December 11, 2013 9:25 PM:

Kinship certainly reduces many forms of social friction. It probably makes genuine democracy a lot easier (as opposed to the imperioligarchokleptocracy America now has).

But keep in mind that an awful lot of violence is between people who know each other, and who are often related, ethnically if not immediately. The biggest explanation for Iceland's low levels of violence? I'm going with the fact that they're all white Scandinavians. If Iceland were black, its murder rate would still probably be far higher than more ethnically diverse (but white) American communities.

Therapsid said at December 12, 2013 6:58 AM:

The fact that homicide rates in Hong Kong are even lower is more interesting.

Here we have one of the largest and most densely populated metropolises in the world and there's scarcely any homicide.

Murder rates are low throughout East Asia. If Scandinavian low violent crime rates are the result of genetics, then it's likely that East Asian rates are as well. And they support the contention that whites have higher rates of violent crime than East Asians.

George said at December 12, 2013 8:59 PM:

Iceland, land of the Sagas, the berserker, and the blood feud. Clearly Iceland has only recently become non-violent so any explanation cannot include factors that have been the case for a long time, like the small size of the population and the consanguinity of the population.

I wonder though how much of it is a change in genetics a la Gergory Clark - yes, a change in genetics since Icelanders were paradigmatically violent in the past - or how much of it is environmental? Another interesting case that sheds light in this is the Japanese, historically one of the most violent people yet utterly docile since WW2. Yet psychologically Japan remains permeated with a very intense violence; one has only to look at Japanese movies, comic books, and anime. Japanese actors specialize in a very peculiar and effective method of conveying sheer aggression and violence through voice, a kind of growling fury, that has no parallel in Hollywood for conjuring up a sense of aggression. No people that gets off on this kind of thing can be said to have lost an interest in violence.

I suspect violence has a strong environmental trigger. After all, the supposedly peaceful upper class whites and Japanese were incredibly violent but a hundred or so years ago (duels were common in Europe, of course, and "honor" was a serious thing) and if you look at the violence of blacks and hispanics it makes total sense from an environmental point of view. These groups have low IQs and few options to gain status or wealth through work or brains and are surrounded by groups who have such options; in such conditions it makes total sense to cultivate the asset you have, brute violence. In 19th century Germany and 18th century Europe it made total sense to have duels all the time and have a hair trigger sense of honor.

So while the human capacity for violence like all capacities has a genetic basis its expression seems to be heavily, perhaps even largely? mediated by environment.

georgesdelatour said at December 13, 2013 1:27 AM:

There's a big difference between the disciplined, highly focussed violence of a well-organised military and the rabble-like near-random violence of a riot or a bar-room brawl. There's no reason to think the nerdy operator of a military drone would be especially violent when s/he's off duty. And there's no reason to think the participants in the 2011 London riots would make great SAS units or Navy Seals.

When you say Japan used to be violent quite recently, do you just mean that their military was aggressively overrunning other Asian countries, or are you also saying the country was, internally, a lawless, high-crime hellhole? As far as I'm aware, it wasn't.

Savant said at December 13, 2013 8:42 PM:

Well, maybe Iceland's uniqueness is set to end. Enrichment is in the way! I've since learned that in fact Iceland has 'a thriving African community'..if your mind can comprehend such a concept.


Audacious Epigone said at December 16, 2013 5:09 PM:


Iceland has a population of about 3.5k, so that rate of 0.3 per 100,000 translates to a single murder in the annual reporting period the UN report considered. There is almost certainly no statistically significant difference in the homicide rates of Hong Kong and Iceland.

asPIRANT said at December 18, 2013 12:33 PM:

It's only rational to search for root causes if you're absolutely sure they're going to paint a good picture about you. If it turns out that you didn't really earn all your fancy scientific degrees, that your achievements were an inevitability given your genetic makeup, you can't claim to be as special.

There's also the chance you'll find out you aren't as special as you thought, that there's some weakness in your line that can't be repaired save for eugenic exclusion.

There are a lot of scary scenarios, not just the obvious idea of a new genetic fascism.

Mthson said at December 21, 2013 1:18 AM:


This is a working link to that article on the exciting upcoming population changes in Iceland.

Their future president seems to have all the experience necessary to run a nation.

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