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The Psychology Of The Fear Of Crime

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2945 words Published: 18th Apr 2017

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Fear of crime is a very prevalent issue today. Many people in today’s society express anxiety and fear about crime, and about being victimized. The level of fear that a person holds depends on many factors, including gender, age, any past experiences with crime that a person may have, where one lives, and one’s ethnicity. All of these factors have an impact on fear levels. People react to fear in different ways. Some people try to avoid crime, others try to protect themselves, and still others try to prevent victimization by not possessing anything for which they can be victimized.

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The fear of crime is a critical issue in contemporary criminal justice policy because of its potential to create social misunderstanding. Although some awareness and concern about crime could be considered healthy or adaptive, taken to the extremes, the fear of crime can impede individual’s behavior and affect the quality of life. The fear of crime is one of the most researched topics in crime (Farall 2000), with the risk of crime being seen as one of the most pressing concerns affecting people’s way of life. The fear of crime has social and psychological dimensions that require interdisciplinary analysis. (Helmut Kury, 2008)

Not all behaviours indicative of fear, are prompted a by fearful experience. For example, taking insurance, locking the house, the car etc are everyday precautionary actions to minimize one’s risk of crime, but is not necessarily provoked by a fear-inciting experience. These safety precautions are taken daily by a vast majority, without the attached emotional fear, just like the precautionary exercise, eating right so as to avoid the onset of ill health.


The fear of crime refers to the fear of being a victim of crime as opposed to the actual probability of being a victim of crime.

Fear, in this topic, is defined as an anticipation of victimization, rather than fear of an actual victimization. This type of fear relates to how vulnerable a person feels.

Fear is also an “emotional reaction characterized by a sense of danger and anxiety produced by the threat of physical harm…elicited by perceived cues in the environment that relate to some aspect of crime” (Church Council, 1995, p. 7).

Crime can be defined as the breach of one or more rules or laws for which some governing authority or force may ultimately prescribe a punishment. OR. An act punishable by law. wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

The core aspect of fear of crime is the range of emotions that is provoked in individuals by the possibility of victimization. There might be two dimensions of fear: those everyday moments of worry that transpire when one feels personally threatened; and some more diffuse or anxiety about risk. Fear of crime can be differentiated into public feelings, thoughts and behaviors about the personal risk of criminal victimization. These feelings, thoughts and behaviors have a number of damaging effects on individual and group life:

They can erode public health and psychological well-being;

Alter routine activities and habits;

Contribute to some places turning into ‘no-go’ areas via a withdrawal from community;

Drain community cohesion, trust and neighbourhood stability.



Gender has been found to be the strongest predictor of fear. Women have a much greater fear of crime than men, but are victimized less than men. Women’s fear comes mostly from their vulnerability to sexual aggression: women are ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted than are men (Crowell & Burgess, 1996). This fear of sexual assault and rape transposes itself onto other types of crimes (Ferraro, 1996). Women do not simply become aware of this fear one day, nor are they born with it; women are socialized into thinking that they are vulnerable to attack if they, for example, go out alone at night. Parents, peers and media emphasize and re-enforce this fear, and women are expected to succumb to it.


Age is also a powerful predictor of fear but, unlike gender, with age the fear varies from crime to crime. When it comes to age, it is customary to assume that the elderly are the most afraid, and for many crimes, this assumption holds true, such as in mugging cases and break and enters. When it comes to crimes like rape, sexual assault and stranger attacks, it has been found that younger people tend to be more fearful (Evans, 1995). Elderly people have a high fear level in relation to many crimes because they feel vulnerable. This vulnerability stems from the physical and social limitations that elderly people have which renders them unable to defend themselves or to seek support and help.

Past Experiences with Crime

Many studies have examined whether or not past experiences with crime and criminals have any effect on the level of fear that a person holds, but findings have not been unanimous. Some studies have found no real differences between victims and non-victims, but other studies have documented a difference. In studying the effects of crime on college students, Dull and Wint (1997) found that those students who had been victims of crime had less fear of personal crime, but more fear of property crime, than those not victimized.

Certain crimes generate more fear for victims than others. Being a victim of a robbery, for example, generates a high level of fear because it contains elements that cause a greater amount of fear to be instilled in its victims. Robbery usually involves a stranger, weapons, physical assaults and the loss of a fair amount of money (Skogan & Klecka, 1997). Burglary, because of its invasion of privacy and substantial amount of loss, generates a high level of fear. The victims who express the most fear of walking alone in their neighbourhood after dark are victims of sexual assault, followed by victims of robbery, break and enter, assault, vandalism, motor vehicle theft, household theft and personal theft.


Fear of crime also varies according to where one lives. People who live in cities tend to hold higher levels of fear because cities and other urban areas tend to have higher crime rates than rural areas.

Ethnicity and Culture

Studies have found that fear levels vary according to ethnic background. While whites tend to show the least amount of fear, the question of who has the most fear has not been unanimously agreed upon. A 1994 British Crime Survey found that in relation to crimes of harassment, burglary, rape and mugging, the ‘Asian’ group expressed the most fear. The ‘Black’ group showed the next highest fear level in relation to these crimes, while the ‘White’ group showed the least amount of fear. This survey also found that for the crime of theft from car, the ‘Black’ group showed a slightly higher level of fear than the ‘Asian’ group, and the ‘White’ group once again had the lowest level of fear. In relation to simply feeling unsafe, the ‘Asian’ group was the highest, and the ‘White’ group had only a slightly higher level of fear than the ‘Black’ group (Hough, 1995).

Other Variables

There are several other variables which have been examined in order to see if they have an effect on fear of crime. These variables are not as prominent as the ones listed above, but their effects are still worth noting. Factors such as low income levels (Evans, 1995; Silverman & Kennedy, 1983), and low educational levels (Evans, 1995) tend to increase levels of fear.

Factors influencing the fear of crime include public perceptions of neighborhood stability and breakdown, and broader factors where anxieties about crime express anxieties about the pace and direction of social change. There may also be some wider cultural influences: some have argued that modern times have left people especially sensitive to issues of safety and insecurity.


Due to their fear of crime, people try to reduce their risk of victimization in three ways: avoidance behaviours, protective behaviours, and insurance behaviours (Garofalo, 1981). Avoidance behaviours are restrictive, involving avoiding unsafe areas at night or certain locations altogether, or reducing social interaction and movements outside of the home. Protective behaviours include obtaining security systems and watch dogs, joining self-defence courses, and/or participating in community programs such as Neighbourhood Watch. Insurance behaviours aim at reducing one’s risk through the minimization of victimization costs, leaving the person feeling that they do not have anything of value to be victimized for, and therefore will not be victimized.

Neighbourhood Watch was started as a way to reduce crime and fear by involving citizens in crime prevention, urging them to come together to talk about what is going on in their neighbourhood, and to formulate plans and methods to alleviate crime such as neighbourhood surveillance and crime- reporting activities

Since the government is accountable to and elected by the public, the government must respond when change is demanded. The government reaction to the public’s concern about, and fear of, crime is often one of changing correctional legislation.

People get their information about crime from a number of sources, but one major source for information is the media. The media are a powerful way of getting messages across to citizens.

Many studies have looked at the way in which the media portray crime and how their portrayals affect levels of fear. It has been found that the media tend to disproportionately represent violent accounts of crime.

Concern about crime can be differentiated from perceptions of the risk of personal victimization. Concern about crime includes public assessments of the size of the crime problem. An example of a question that could be asked is whether crime has increased, decreased or stayed the same in a certain period and/or in a certain area, for instance the individual’s own neighborhood.

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A way to measure fear of crime is to ask people whether they ever avoid certain areas, protect certain objects or take preventive measures. This way, measuring fear of crime can become a relatively straightforward thing, because the questions asked tap into actual behavior and objective facts, such as the amount of money spent on a burglar-alarm or extra locks. However, it is important to note that some degree of fear might be healthy for some people, creating a natural defense against crime. In short, when the risk of crime is real, a specific level of fear might actually be functional: worry about crime might stimulate precaution which then makes people feel safer and lowers their risk of crime. The fear of crime is a very important feature in criminology.


By contrast, the cognitive side of fear of crime includes public perceptions of the likelihood of falling victim, public senses of control over the possibility, and public estimations of the seriousness of the consequences of crime. People who feel especially vulnerable to victimization are likely to feel that they are especially likely to be targeted by criminals (i.e. victimization is likely), that they are unable to control the possibility (i.e. they have low self-efficacy), and that the consequences would be especially severe. Additionally, these three different components of risk perception may interact: the impact of perceived likelihood on subsequent emotional response (worry, fear, anxiety, etc.) is likely to be especially strong among those who feel that consequences are high and self-efficacy is low.

Perhaps the biggest influence on fear of crime is public concern about neighbourhood disorder, social cohesion and collective efficacy. The proposition here is that the incidence and risk of crime has become coupled in the public mind with issues of social stability, moral consensus, and the collective informal control processes which underpin neighborhood order.

Many people also use the language of ‘fear’ and ‘crime’ to express concerns about neighbourhood breakdown, the loss of moral authority, and the crumbling of civility and social capital.

People can come to different conclusions about the same social and physical environment: two individuals who live next door to each other and share the same neighbourhood can view local disorder quite differently. Why might people have different levels of tolerance or sensitivity to these potentially ambiguous cues? UK research has suggested that broader social anxieties about the pace and direction of social change may shift levels of tolerance to ambiguous stimuli in the environment. Individuals who hold more authoritarian views about law and order, and who are especially concerned about a long-term deterioration of community, may be more likely to perceive disorder in their environment. They may also be more likely to link these physical cues to problems of social cohesion and consensus, of declining quality of social bonds and informal social control.

People, who have the fear of crime, may change their behaviour, prefer to stay at home and avoid activities such as travelling in the public transport due to the potential danger they believe the outer world poses (Garafalo, 1981, Patterson 1985, Hale 1996). Also people may fear certain/specific crime, like some women are afraid of going out in the night alone or going to certain places, for fear of being sexually assaulted.

Many studies have been conducted to examine the predictors of fear of crime among adults, but feelings of insecurity among children and adolescents have been practically ignored. The effect of parenting styles on the child’s level of fear is enormous. The level of parental supervision, especially fathers, is associated with more fears being experienced by children. Active parental stimulation of participation in organized leisure activities results in lower levels of fear among female children. Parents who focus on independence and autonomy, in contrast, seem to raise children who have lower degrees of fear.

Other findings that relate to fear of crime in adolescence, such as gender differences and socialization, media and leisure patterns, and victimization and personal adjustment, are also important.

A new University College London study has shown that people with a strong fear of crime are almost twice as likely to show symptoms of depression. The research shows that fear of crime is associated with decreased physical functioning and lower quality of life.

The study’s lead author, Dr Mai Stafford, UCL Epidemiology & Public Health, said: “Very broadly, these results show that if your fear of crime levels are higher, your health is likely to be worse — particularly your mental health.

Of course, you might expect that people who are depressed or frail might be more afraid of crime and venturing out of doors, so we have taken account of previous mental health problems and physical frailty and adjusted for those accordingly. Even with a level playing field, the data still demonstrates this strong link between fear of crime and poorer mental health.


Fear of crime is real and it affects people’s quality of life. It is believed, however, that the series of legislative initiatives enacted in reaction to fear of crime have not proven to be beneficial. Fear has not been reduced and people do not feel safer. As long as fear persists, the public will continue to call for more of the same harsh measures. It is time we took a second look at the limited safety provided by the correctional changes we have implemented. It is time that politicians and leaders stop merely reacting to fear by proposing simplistic, short-term solutions to the complex problems of crime. Years of research have shown that the correctional practices we now have in place are not effective in creating safe communities and simply delay the problem, thereby not reducing fear in the long-term.

The public looks to others for help in reducing the fear of crime, but the people the public looks to for guidance cannot always be of help. When the public sees that the police, the government and the law are unable to assist them with their concerns, individuals will often take charge of the situation for themselves. This type of mentality can lead to vigilantism.

Suggestion that a number of broad strategies be put in place to address both crime and fear of crime, includes

1) Educate the public about crime, crime prevention and what works in corrections. There are steps that can be taken to protect oneself and to reduce personal fear, but people need to have a better understanding of their risk and what measures do increase public safety.

2) Involve communities in both crime prevention through social development and in community-based justice programs. Direct citizen involvement in justice leads to a better informed citizenry, who then are more understanding of what impacts crime and how to change it.


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