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Fear of Crime - Perceptions Of Risk

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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?).

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