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PSYCHOLOGY OF FEAR OF CRIME.

Over the decades, Fear of Crime has been a recurrent theme in the public policy and academic debate. The discussion has consecutively been  stimulated by empirical research on Fear of Crime; the body of literature has grown substantially in these recent years. Although, the results of so-called ‘crime surveys’ suggests that Fear of Crime is a prevalent social problem, the need for a theoretical clarification of the meaning and measurement of ‘Fear  of Crime’ has been emphasized. The perspective taken here is based on the hypothesis that the previous inter-predations of empirical results lack the theoretical background necessary for sensitive conclusions to be drawn. In other words, the author of this article argues that the empirical data on Fear of Crime are often seen through the wrong spectacles.

While the investigation of Fear of Crime has a long bond with criminology, the investigation of fear has an even longer relation and has rooted congelation in psychology. The very purpose of this article is to furnish the findings of psychological research applicable on the Fear of Crime.

Accordingly, psychological concepts of emotions, notably the state or trait distinction and the notion of emotions as involving multiple components, will be applied to Fear of Crime, thus providing the outlines of a psychological apprehension of Fear of Crime. This article proceeds in two major steps. In  the initial step, through this article, we shall try to investigate the structural hypothesis of Fear of Crime. We start by focusing on the conceptual and empirical links between the Fear of Crime as a state on the one hand, and as  a disposition on the other. Recent psychological approaches consider  emotions to be affective states characterized by responses that include physiological, behavioural-expressive and subjective facets.

The state of Fear of Crime will thus be assumed to be manifold, and we shall examine whether this approach could be applied to the theory of Fear of Crime as a normative trait or not. Author shall then try to spot numerous objects of fear, the concept of crime. In the second step, the article will discuss the methodological consequences of this conceptualization, particularly with respect to the assessment of Fear of Crime. Finally, this article will discuss common explanations for Fear of Crime in the terms of our conceptualization.

The below mentioned two fundamental remarks may likely be facilitate to avoid potential misunderstandings:

Firstly, the term ‘fear of crime’ is used throughout this article to mean the individual’s fear of personally becoming a victim of crime (in contrast to a general concern about crime, or the perceived extent of crime);

Secondly, the distinction between feelings and emotions as well as the relationship between anxiety and fear have prompted extensive debate in the field of psychology. For our purposes, it is not necessary to try to resolve these issues, because we focus on reactions to a definite and recognizable external threat, although this threat (‘crime’) may be something quite vague.

The Fear of Crime

In general, the discussion of fear of crime focuses on a person’s characteristic perception and evaluation of a particular type of event, the certain crime in the sense of an individual parameter. Criminal policy and criminology also tends to focus on the personal traits with respect to fear of crime rather than on the situational dice.

It is relevant, however, to distinguish conceptually between this personal attribute and the actual fear as a momentary affective state that varies within a person according to the situation at hand. This distinction was introduced by Catell and further elaborated by Spielberger and colleagues. Despite some empirical difficulties, the conceptual reasoning behind this distinction seems clear, and it can be applied to fear of crime as follows: I may be afraid of becoming a victim of crime in situations such as walking in a dimly lit park, talking to a stranger, and/or hearing a strange noise behind me. Here, fear of crime is a transitory state that will generally pass quickly. In the long term, however, such emotional occurrences may contribute particularly if experienced repeatedly to my general disposition of being afraid of becoming   a victim of crime. In contrast, fear of crime as a disposition (trait) describes  my tendency to experience fear of crime in certain situations; it is comparatively stable within subjects, but varies and jeopardizes between subjects. Such an individual disposition is characterized and appreciated by experiencing more situations as being relevant to fear, being more likely to acknowledge, experience and testify fear in a given situation, and possibly experiencing fear more intensely. Therefore, persons with such a state of mind are more likely to experience the state of ‘being afraid’.

Complexional fear of crime is one of the regulatory parameters that influence or determine the actual occurrence, i.e. the situational fear of crime (as a state). In principle, complexional fear of crime can also change within subjects. This variability does not imply that dispositional fear is to be conjured by acute changes in the situational context. However, such modifications would rather relate to the situational fear of crime, i.e. the dynamic process which has a beginning and an end, and that lasts for a calculated time.

In contrast, the ‘changeability’ of the complexional fear of crime reflects develop mental changes within the person, such as ‘growing’ in fearlessness  or timidity. The complexional fear of crime is the result of an ontogenetic developmental process which is influenced by personal conditions and attributes, such as anxiousness, perceptive tendencies and coping resources on the contrary, and by individual experiences of fear-relevant situations on the opposite, as well as by the interaction of these two factors. The relationship between the  complexional fear of crime and the situational fear  of crime is the conceptual one; the complexional fear of crime is conceptualized as the individual tendency to react ‘fearfully’. As complexional fear of crime increases, so does, ceteris paribus, the probability that certain situations will evoke fear of crime as a state of mind.

In a given number of situations, an individual with a higher complexional fear of crime will experience the state ‘fear of crime’ more often. If this pattern of results fails to emerge in empirical research, either the disposition has been incorrectly diagnosed, or the situations considered did not evoke sufficient fear of crime. Conversely, the relation of any actual occurrence of situational fear of crime to complexional fear of crime is an empirical one. Whether or not a current state of situational fear of crime results in an increase or decrease  in the complexional fear of crime depends on various inter-personal conditions. These include the ability to wrestle with situations evoking the  fear of crime (How do I confront with the fear while being afraid?) on the one hand, and the ability to cope with such fear-of-crime episodes on the other (How do I confront with having had that episode of fear?).

Individual Life Span Development

Figure 1 Development of complexional fear of crime dependent on personal prerequisites and experiences of situations of fear. As illustrated in Figure 1, the influence of states on the complexional fear of crime might be moderated, for example, by self-efficacy, i.e. expectancies about one’s ability to control future incidents.

It seems reasonable to assume, for example, that people who believe that they possess such abilities (high self-efficacy) are better able to cope with threatening situations than people who are less convinced of their own abilities in this respect. Other variables (particularly individual coping resources, physical health and social support) might also moderate this interrelation.

It should be put on record that the fear-of-crime may themselves influence an individual’s conditions. Anticipated self-efficacy, for example, is somewhat determined by the experiences in which an individual learns about his or her own efficacy and that of others. Fear-of-crime may represent compatible and consistent experiences in this sense, and are worth being examined more closely.

In examining the state of fear, fear of crime can be conceived of as a multi- dimensional concept. The phenomenologically salient aspect the (conscious) experience of feeling fearful is a conglomerate of these facets, reflecting mainly the affective facet. However, the effect of fear must always be accompanied by a cognitive facet, i.e. the cognitive notion of the situation as threatening or dangerous. Being afraid implies that the situation at hand is perceived as dangerous, regardless of how vague this perception may be. It is logically impossible to be afraid but not to judge the situation as threatening.

The third component of fear is an expressive facet: fearful behaviour (e.g. avoidance behaviour and self-protection). The conceptual association to the behavioural facet of fear of crime is less clear than the link between the affective and cognitive facets. Imagine a situation in which you are afraid, but nobody acknowledges. You might be get harmed through mind and body with fear or able to control yourself perfectly as a result of years of practice. In either case, even a good observer who knows you well would not be able to  tell whether or not you are afraid simply by watching you. This illustrates the difficulty in determining the conceptual status of the behaviour component of fear.

An integral part of this problem is based on the question of what to subsume under the term ‘behaviour’. First of all, the term covers (1) overt, intentionally planned and controlled behaviour (e.g. taking the tear gas spray out of one’s handbag). Clearly, restricting ‘behaviour’ to such actions would be too narrow a definition. Moreover, ‘behaviour’ would then not be a yardstick of fear, but merely a reasonably uncertain manifestation of it. Particularly, (2) visible behaviour that is not intentionally planned and controlled is also indicative of fear (involuntary expressions and gestures are paradigmatic here). The conceptual status of (3) physiological reactions, i.e. non-visible reactions that may only be detected with the help of appropriate equipment, is controversial. Subject to the accuracy of measurement, the ‘physiological instrument’ ‘human being’ will register a change of some kind in the physiological state (i.e. react to something) at any given time. However, there is no evidence that fear (or any other emotion) is inevitably accompanied by a specific pattern of peripheral physiological activity. Since physiological events are ambiguous (e.g. ‘elevated heartbeat’ allows for a number of possible interpretations), behaviour in such a broad sense would not be an indication of fear because   it would not be an indication of anything. It may well be that a set of typical physical patterns turns out to be characteristic of fear. It is unlikely, nonetheless, that such patterns will ever be predominance (let alone indicative) of fear of crime. The question of what to subsume under the term ‘behaviour’ might be answered by assuming the visible behaviour to reflect a motive (action tendency). A motive may actually be reflected in visible behaviour, but this is not necessarily the case. Such an action tendency could be regarded as constitutive for the state of fear. We would then no longer be dealing with the question of visibility of behaviour, but with the question of how to recognize the motive reliably. Furthermore, the necessary conditions for translating a motive into behaviour still need to be investigated empirically. To summarize, we consider affect, cognition and motive to be necessary conditions for a state to be labelled as ‘fear’. If this state is correctly diagnosed, all three components will have to be ‘given’, i.e. exceed a threshold value. Fear would then consist of:

  1. The individual’s cognitive perception of being threatened (C),
  2. A corresponding affective experience (A) and
  3. An appropriate motive or action tendency (M).

Thus, we need to investigate whether these three components (C, A, M) can occur independently and, if so, whether any other combinations could also be labelled ‘fear’. Table 1 presents all combinations of the three facets, each with a description of the attributed state. Only the eighth and final combination ‘+ + +’ embodies a typical or paradigmatic example of fear.

Table 1 C-A-M combinations and attributed state.

S.No. C A M Attributed State
1. = No fear.
2. + Apathy: ‘This situation should actually threaten me because it’s dangerous; it’s strange but I don’t care and don’t have any inclination to move.
3. + Free floating anxiety.
4. + Cautious behaviour that is not motivated by actual appraisals or emotions (eg. Behaviour that has become routine or reflex  behaviour).
5. + + This combination might best be illustrated by some “odd cases”, namely: Paralysed with fright,Bravery,Helplessness,Nightmare.
6. + + Someone behaves “fearfully” in view of a perceived threat, but “keeps cool” (e.g. well- trained and experienced body guard).
7. + + Panic attacks, phobia.
8. + + + = Fear.

Representation Values.

C= Cognitive perception of being threatened.

A= Feeling of fear.

M= Action tendency.

From this, we can deduce that if our theoretical assumption holds (i.e. that C+ A + M is a necessary condition for the state of fear) and if the state in question is fear (leaving open the question of how this would be measured), then combinations other than ‘+ + +’ are impossible. Thus, if the state is fear, an ‘incomplete occurrence’ (in the sense that one of the components is missing) merely indicates assessment problems. It should be emphasized that an individual will usually sense momentary fear of crime without reflecting upon these complicated ‘cognitive-evaluative dynamics’, which are nevertheless covered by fear-provoking situations. A threatening situation combines    (previous)    expectations,    an    actual    awareness,   appraisal, attributions, evaluations as well as the affect and typically—as an indicator and external sign of the state of ‘being afraid of crime’ visible behaviour.

These components are linked to each other by complex trigger and feedback processes (for example: ‘Hearing footsteps, I think “That’s my mother”, and this calms me down’ vs. ‘Hearing footsteps, my heart starts pounding, and because I can’t stop my heart racing, my fear intensifies even further’). As such, positive or negative ‘escalation loops’ are conceptually coherent (and thus empirically possible. This has an ambiguous effect upon precautionary measures: For instance, many underground car parks now reserve a number of parking spaces for women. We would usually expect that reading the sign ‘Reserved for Women Drivers’ would reassure women who feel uncomfortable when entering the car park. However, it is also conceivable that reading such a sign might worry women (or men) who had not previously perceived any  risk, but who are now reminded that car parks are ‘dangerous places’. In other words, the same cue may either trigger or allay fear—depending on the individual’s affective-cognitive state before exposure to the cue.

If the arguments presented thus far can be accepted, the ongoing criminological discussion of fear of crime needs to be refined in at least two respects. The first involves the temporal prospect (fear as state vs. fear as disposition), the second, the component code (fear as consisting of affect, cognition, motive). As discussed above, we regard the cognitive perception of being threatened, a corresponding affective experience, and an appropriate action tendency as necessary conditions for the situational fear of crime. This raises the question as to whether the multidimensional conception of situational fear of crime also applies to dispositional fear of crime.

To begin with, it makes no sense to use the term ‘facets’ to refer to a disposition in the same way as has been done for a state. Rather, it should be expressed as a disposition to (the coincidence of) these facets. Because dispositional fear of crime is defined as ‘experiencing the state of being afraid comparatively easily’, it follows that frequent occurrence of all aspects described as being necessary for situational fear of crime is constitutive for dispositional fear of crime. The tendency (motive) to behave fearfully was identified as being constitutive for the situational fear of crime. With respect to the dispositional fear of crime, it is (conceptually) necessary for such behaviour to be exhibited sufficiency frequently. It is meaningless (i.e. inappropriate) to call someone fearful or anxious if they rarely behave in such a way (compared to others in the same social environment.

To summarize, dispositional fear of crime does not consist of three components, but the components of situational fear of crime are conceptual indicators of dispositional fear of crime. The measurement of dispositional  fear of crime must therefore reflect these three components. We now shift to the second distinguishing feature of fear of crime, and clarify the perception  of the object of fear.

Concluding Remarks

In applying psychological concepts to the criminological construct of fear of crime, we hope to have offered a conceptual as well as a methodological framework that will not only increase our understanding of previous results, but also be helpful for the design of future research. With respect to previous results, we have argued that the validity of the measures used must be taken into account. As shown, this validity can be discussed, thus improving our understanding of empirical results. Where future research is concerned, we hope to have presented a convincing argument for fear of crime to be measured in a multifaceted way, with respect to specific offences on the one hand, and to the different components of fear on the other.

Gurmeet Singh Jaggi Legal Intern, Tygar Law Corporate

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

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