Fear of Crime Research Paper

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Criminal events provoke many emotions from the general public—outrage, sadness, anger, disgust, shock. One of those emotions, public fear of crime, has drawn concerted attention from social scientists since the late 1960s. One reason for that attention is a simple but sobering fact: The number of people who experience fear of crime during any particular period is enormously greater than the number of people who will actually become victims of crime. To illustrate, about 40 to 50 percent of respondents in national surveys each year report that they are afraid to walk alone at night in the vicinity of their home, and more than half say that becoming a victim of crime is something that they personally worry about. By contrast, the chances of actually becoming a victim of crime each year are considerably smaller, ranging from fewer than one in ten thousand persons per year for homicide to about one in ten to twenty households per year for residential burglary. Fear of crime, then, is a much larger social problem than crime itself (Warr, 1994, 1995).

The phrase ‘‘fear of crime’’ is sometimes loosely used to describe a variety of attitudes, perceptions, or feelings about crime (e.g., concern about the moral decline of the country, the deterioration of neighborhoods, or mistrust of strangers). Used properly, however, the term fear refers to a particular emotion, that is, a feeling of apprehension or dread caused by an awareness or expectation of danger. Psychologists often use the word fear to describe reactions to immediate threats (a stranger moves toward you with a weapon in his hand) and the term anxiety to describe reactions to possible future events (e.g., what will happen when I walk home tonight or go to the store?). Criminologists rarely honor this distinction, however, and conventionally speak of ‘‘fear of crime’’ even when what they have in mind is anxiety about crime.

Fear of Crime and Perceptions of Risk

Research on fear of crime consistently indicates that the proximate cause of fear is the perceived risk of victimization, or an individual’s subjective probability that a crime will occur to them. That may seem like an obvious fact, but the relation between fear and perceived risk is more complex than it might appear, and it is critical to understanding fear. Not all people, for example, react to the same risk in the same way. The degree of risk that is sufficient to terrify an elderly woman, for example, might scarcely elicit a reaction from a nineteen-year-old male (Warr, 1987). Individuals also differ as to what constitutes a risk; a wrong phone number or obscene phone call may signify little or nothing to one person, but imply a threat of imminent danger to another.

Perceived risk is also crucial to understanding the degree to which different crimes are feared. There is a natural tendency to assume that fear is directly proportional to the perceived seriousness of crimes, meaning that people fear very serious offenses (homicide or robbery, for example) more so than less serious crimes (residential burglary or auto theft). But that would be true only if people perceived all crimes to be equally likely. In the real world, there is enormous variation across crimes in the perceived risk of victimization as well as the perceived seriousness of crimes, and neither of these factors alone is a sufficient condition for fear. In order to provoke strong fear, an offense must be perceived to be both serious and likely. Although it may seem surprising, homicide is not among the most highly feared crimes in the United States because, despite its seriousness, it is (correctly) viewed as an unlikely event. By contrast, the most feared offense in the United States is residential burglary when no one is home, a crime that is perceived to be fairly serious and rather likely (Warr and Stafford; Warr 1994, 1995).

Just how people form perceptions of risk is not clearly understood, although mass media news coverage of crime seems to have a substantial impact on public perceptions of crime (Warr, 2000). In everyday life outside the home, people often encounter cues or signs that imply heightened risk and thus incite fear. One of those cues is darkness, a particularly potent sign of danger. Another is novelty, or exposure to new places. Rather than arousing fear, a cue that acts to alleviate fear is the presence of other people—even strangers—in the immediate vicinity. Individuals generally feel safer in public places when other people are around—unless, of course, those other people themselves appear to be dangerous. One category of persons that is particularly frightening to many people is young males (especially groups of young males), and young males even seem to frighten one another (Warr, 1990).

These cues aside, a number of investigators have sought to identify the physical and social features of neighborhoods—litter and trash, graffiti, transients, broken windows, abandoned homes, and other so-called signs of incivility— that seem to mark areas as dangerous places (Ferraro, 1995). Research indicates that these signs are in fact correlated with fear, but this finding is difficult to interpret because places that have signs of incivility also tend to have high crime rates, and it is therefore difficult to isolate the cause of fear (is it crime or signs of crime?).

Gender and Age

Although fear of crime is quite common in our society, it is substantially more common in some population groups than others. Women, for example, are significantly more prone to fear of crime than are men. The large difference in fear between men and women shows itself not only in self-reports of fear, but also in the behavioral repertoires of the sexes. Women, for example, are far more likely than men to report that they stay at home at night or that they avoid leaving the house alone. One of the factors that seems to underlie the differences between the sexes is the extraordinary fear that many women feel toward one crime—rape. Evidence indicates that rape is feared more than any other crime among younger women (those under about thirty-five years of age), that it is perceived to be approximately as serious a crime as homicide, and that rape is a ‘‘master offense’’ that lurks behind fear of other crimes (e.g., residential burglary, obscene phone calls). So central is rape to the fears of women that one is tempted to speculate that, for many women, fear of crime is fear of rape (Warr, 1984, 1985; Ferraro, 1996).

Fear of crime varies not only by gender, but by age as well. The evidence here is more complex, however. Early studies reported a simple positive relation between age and fear, but more recent, offense-specific, studies reveal that age differences in fear are apparent only for some offenses, and that even in those cases fear is not consistently related to age in a monotonic fashion. Using national data and aggregating over offenses, Ferraro (1995) found fear to be strongest among middle-aged individuals (ages forty-five to fifty-four in his study) and among the very youngest adults (eighteen to twenty-four).

Altruistic Fear

Nearly all research to date has concentrated on the fear that individuals feel for their own personal safety. People, however, can and often do feel fear for other persons as well, an emotion that has been referred to as altruistic fear. Parents, for example, ordinarily exhibit strong concern for their children—especially young children— and often take vigorous precautions to protect them. Similarly, married couples often fear for one another’s safety, although husbands are more likely to worry about their wives than vice versa. Altruistic fear appears to be more common than personal fear and evidently inspires many day-to-day precautions against crime.

Effects of Fear

To criminologists and sociologists, the importance of fear ultimately lies in its consequences for individuals, neighborhoods, and for society as a whole. Research suggests that the consequences of fear in the U.S. are widespread and sometimes grave (Warr, 1994, 2000). Nearly all Americans, for example, take some precautions in their everyday lives, if only minor ones like locking doors or leaving lights on. Of the many precautions that citizens employ, the most frequently reported is spatial avoidance, or avoiding places that are believed to be dangerous. In many cities, entire regions of the urban landscape—certain parks, neighborhoods, beaches, downtown sectors, commercial areas, or industrial districts—are effectively off limits to a large segment of the population because of their reputations as ‘‘dangerous places.’’ Fearful individuals are also less likely to leave their homes at night, travel alone, answer their doors, or travel on foot. The proportion of urban women who engage in these sorts of precautions is nothing short of startling, exceeding 40 percent in some cities (Warr, 1994).

Fear of crime can have devastating longterm effects for neighborhoods, according to research by Skogan. Once fear of crime sets in, established, higher-income residents move away, only to be replaced by new arrivals with weaker commitments to the neighborhood. Residents frequently withdraw from community life, further eroding residents’ control of the neighborhood. Some analysts believe that fear of crime has contributed to a general decline in the quality of life in the United States, restricting individual freedom and producing a ‘‘fortress society.’’

However severe consequences, fear is a natural and essential protective mechanism, and fear of crime has undoubtedly prevented many people from becoming victims of crime. It is when fear is out of proportion to objective risk, however, that it becomes dysfunctional for an organism or for a group. One frequently overlooked benefit of fear is that it sometimes draws communities together in common purpose and enhances social solidarity. Evidence for this can be seen in such community activities as neighborhood crime watch programs, ‘‘take back the night’’ marches, police/community liaison programs, and similar local initiatives. The challenge today is to insure that the public is fully and accurately informed about the risks of criminal victimization, and that public fear of crime is not needless or excessive.


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  9. WARR, MARK. ‘‘Altruistic Fear of Victimization in Households.’’ Social Science Quarterly 73 (1992): 723–736.
  10. WARR, MARK. ‘‘Public Perceptions and Reactions to Violent Offending and Victimization.’’ In Understanding and Preventing Violence. 4, Consequences and Control. Edited by Albert J. Reiss, Jr. and Jeffrey A. Roth. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994. Pages 1–66.
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