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Fear of crime can have a positive effect too, argues new study

Fear of crime can be helpful as well as harmful, because it spurs some people into taking precautions that make them feel safer, suggests a new study from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), in association with Keele University. 

The study finds that some people who admit to being worried about falling victim to crime manage to translate their worry into a form of problem-solving – leading them to take practical action against crime, which can range from installing alarms or hiding valuables to answering the front door with caution. 

When neither their fear of crime nor the actions they take reduce their quality of life, concludes the report's author Dr Jonathan Jackson, it is logical to conclude that the fear has had a partly beneficial effect and should be classified as 'functional fear'. Moreover, strategies to reduce fear of crime risk reducing some people's natural defences against crime. 

Theft warning signThe study, Functional Fear and Public Insecurities About Crime, is newly-published by the British Journal of Criminology, and is co-authored with Emily Gray of the Research Institute for Law, Politics & Justice. 

Dr Jackson analysed responses from 2,844 Londoners who were asked how worried they were by crime and whether the quality of their life was affected – both by worry itself but also by the precautions they took. They were also asked about the precautions they took – for example, how often they avoided public transport – and to what extent they felt safer as a result. 

The respondents were classed in three groups – the unworried, who reported no anxiety about crime even if they took precautions, - the 'dyfunctionally worried' and the 'functionally worried'. 

The dysfunctionally worried were those who reported fear of crime, took precautions and who said their quality of life was impaired by either or both while the functionally worried said they worried about crime and took precautions but did not feel either had an effect on their quality of life. 

Overall, 73 per cent of people were unworried, 20 per cent were dysfunctionally worried while eight per cent were functionally worried and so could be said to experience some benefit from fear of crime. 

The analysis also found that women were more likely than men to experience both functional and dysfunctional worry, but that age did not appear to be a significant factor. Recent victims of crime were more likely to feel dysfunctional worry.  

Photograph of Dr Jonathan JacksonDr Jackson said: 'Of course no one would deny that the fear of crime can be destructive and paralysing. But this research suggests that some people and communities have the potential and the willingness to convert worry about crime into constructive action. 

'For too long, research into fear of crime has assumed that everyone who experiences fear is damaged by it – overlooking the individuals who take precautions and successfully manage the risks. Given the political currency of the fear of crime, this has risked exaggerating the extent to which fear of crime is a social problem. 

'People have complex and nuanced responses to the risk of crime and by understanding that, we may be able to escape a debate in which all fear is assumed to contribute to a significant and growing social problem.' 

However the authors acknowledge that the fear of crime issue is complicated by the estimated actual risk of crime: are individuals ‘getting the target of their emotion right?’. Are those who formulate a positive response to the fear of crime responding proportionately and appropriately? Or are the realistic risks to them so small as to make any response - even positive - an over-reaction? The report concludes: 'Even here, "getting the target right" may be complicated by the value we place on the perceived consequences of victimisation.'

Dr Jackson's research also investigates the links between crime and poor health. Examining a sample of civil servants interviewed at regular intervals over several years, he and his co-author Mai Stafford conclude that poor mental or physical health has a strong statistical effect on worry about crime. But they also find, writing in the British Journal of Criminology in May 2009,  that there is a 'feedback effect' which means that fear of crime can in turn harm our health, so creating a circular process. 

While some people who say they worry about crime are in fact expressing a worry about a broader anxiety about social breakdown, the data shows a core fear of crime which seems to have a real impact on public health.

Functional Fear and Public Insecurities About Crime http://bjc.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/azp059  | 

Public Health and Fear of Crime http://bjc.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/azp033 |

Ends

 For more information contact: 

Dr Jonathan Jackson, Methodology Institute and Mannheim Centre for Criminology, London School of Economics and Political Science 020 7955 7652 j.p.jackson@lse.ac.uk|

LSE Press Office 020 7955 7440 pressoffice@lse.ac.uk|

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