Crime has been with us since the beginning of our history. There is no doubt that it has profoundly shaped the world we live in and even who we are today. Recent studies, including those in the British and European Journals of Criminology, have found that possibly one of crime’s most powerful instruments in society is the stigma of “fear” that crime carries with it. However, most of the leading scholars in this area actually believe that the fear of crime in a person plays a key role in that person having a reduced risk of being victimized by crime in the first place. To understand why this happens, they point to different aspects of the fear that impact how people act within their lifestyles, such as the affective, cognitive, behavioral, and media driven instigators of the fear of crime.
To start, though, we need to understand the basic psychology behind people who have been previously victimized by a major criminal act to see how compelling the fear of crime can be to people and why those people are at such a low risk for a repeat attack. The fact is, they act like many of us would in their situation. The memory of the crime committed against them instills within them a very real fear since they have an all too terribly tangible experience to relate it to. Most, if not all, victims of a major crime almost immediately begin to subtly condition themselves psychologically to prevent or avoid the situation or circumstance that the crime against them originally took place in. For example, a man who was mugged on a certain street probably won’t go down that street again unless he absolutely must due to his traumatic memory connected with that street (Roman and Chalfin 2008). This is a natural human response, and it is the general foundation behind the behavior of prior crime victims. They, therefore, typically take precautions or adopt certain behavioral quirks that better equip them against being re-victimized in the same way.
This is the type of fear that those who have extreme cases of affective, cognitive, behavioral, or media driven fear of crime suffer from almost every day. It is important to note however, that, aside from victims of major crimes, most normal people do not carry an ongoing anxiety of becoming a victim of a crime. That is to say that while most people who walk down a dark and scary street feel their heart quicken a few beats at the sound of their own footsteps, they don’t come to work the next day still be thinking about becoming the victim in a heinous crime. In that regard, the fear of crime should be separated into two broad categories, each housing people of drastically different levels of preparedness in relation to crime. On the one hand, there are those who have momentarily lapses into the fear of crime due to some personal and fleeting threat against them, while one the other hand there are those who are constantly wracked with an insatiable anxiety that “they’re next.” For the purposes of this analysis, we will be dealing primarily with those who believe that “they’re next.”
To further clarify, it is also crucial to differentiate between the apparent “fear of crime” and the perceived risk of crime. It is entirely possible for on to believe themselves at high risk of crime without actually being greatly afraid of being victimized by it (Ferraro 1995). Fear tends to be more emotional in nature whereas perceived risk can be clearly seen as a cognitive function in regards to crime. Most people suffering from an extreme fear of crime are usually associated in the category of legitimately being “afraid” and act according to that emotion.
The affective aspects found within the fear of crime generally involve the actions people take specifically associated with their “fear”. Clearly those in the “they’re next” camp are going to be far more precautious in wake of the possibility of crime in contrast to those who do not fear victimization on a daily basis. Generally, the incessant fear of victimization leads a person down a causal path that inevitable ends in their own protection from crime (Kury 2000). A simple example of this is that the person with constant anxiety might buy a guard dog for their home whereas the person with only temporary bouts of fear might pass on a dog. When a thief comes into the neighborhood looking for a house to break into, he or she will naturally go for the easier target which is the house without the guard dog in the front yard. Thus, constant anxiety toward crime actually reduces their risk of being victimized by crime. Studies have even shown that the fear of crime exists in both high crime areas and also, surprisingly, in low crime areas like rich, suburban neighborhoods (Davidson 1981). The question arises, why are they so afraid if they’re the least at risk?
There can be many reasons for this. In the cognitive aspect, how much risk they think themselves in of being victimized, the person might have an over exaggerated fear of the consequences of becoming a victim of a crime such as they believe they’re going to be murdered rather than simply pick-pocketed. If a person believed they were at a high risk of being murdered every day, they would take precautions (Bullock and Tilley 2008). The possibility exists, as well, that the person simply might feel that they can’t do enough to protect themselves and that one day it’s just going to happen no matter what they do. These fears can appear irrational to those people who don’t actively believe that they are going to be made the victims of a major crime in any minute. Yet, both of these fears can cause the person feeling them to greatly reinforce their “natural defense” against crime by adapting their lifestyles to reflect more security and safety in their daily lives (2008). They effectively take preventative measures. This is a level of protection that general, everyday people don’t believe they need, and consequently that makes general, everyday people more at risk to be victimized.
As illustrated, a large portion of the fear of crime occurs within the belief of risk they’re in. Taking the extreme cognitive aspect out of the equation, though, we’re left with what is considered behavioral fear. This aspect of the fear includes the natural fear that people have putting themselves in perilous situations, such as an elderly man not taking a stroll at night in a rough neighborhood. Evidence has shown, though, that taking these precautions, or others like them, have not significantly reduced the fear that people continue to hold for crime (Sundeen and Mathieu 1976). Also, should the belief system of two individuals differ, they might hold radically varying views on the purported safety of the same environment. It is even supported that a deteriorating neighborhood or even the decay of certain moral fabrics that once existed within an environment can cause people to begin to suspect criminals as social deviants as the radicals that are slowly dismembering the crumbling society and decaying social bonds in a place (Warner 2003). This may lead the anxious people in question to become more reserved and separated from their environment in order to distance themselves from a possible criminal outbreak, a plan that does actually work on occasion.
To top everything off, the mass media can project fear into the hearts and minds of individuals and communities already susceptible to high levels of fear. It is very easy for a person’s risk perception to be exaggerated by the natural inaccuracies found in mass peer-to-peer communication. Once again, though, these people will take into account their prior knowledge of the subject and what they have heard to develop a preemptive reactionary defense on what the criminal had done. Now, given the fact that violent crime attracts more viewers, those watching a media outlet is highly likely to get a dose of violent crime that is disproportionate to the real thing (Craglia et al. 2005). This causes the individual to speculate that there is more violent crime around than there actually is, and also makes the individual come to conclusions about criminal activity in his or her area that are skewed at best.
It is unreasonable to think that the fear of crime hasn’t played a paramount role in how the western culture has developed over the years. Given its massive scope, a number of key factors and influences, of which include social, environmental, political, etc., have been observed in the people of modern society. However, it is also this same fear of crime that tempers people into deterring crime against themselves and, consequently, against others. The fear of crime can also be observed psychotically, either affectively, cognitively, behaviorally, or otherwise, making it one of the most interesting psychological enigmas in criminology. While it is still not completely understood, it appears that the use of fear is integral in both criminal acts and in the counter-measures designed to thwart those acts. If we can learn why those afraid of crime are at a reduced risk of actually becoming a victim of it, then the door toward eliminating crime forever has opened just a little bit more for us.
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