The Brain

The Fear Of Crime Is Contagious Even When Crime Rates Are Low

The world of fake news and alternative facts may be driven by unscrupulous political figureheads, but it also requires the public to allow their emotions to cloud their judgement.

For example, even though crime – particularly violent crime and murder rates – has been steadily dropping in the past few decades in the US, the fear of crime is fluctuating wildly. Sure, there may be isolated cities and towns were crime has spiked, but the overall trend is down.

Nevertheless, plenty of people when asked “what are the crime rates like today” will often say they’re higher than they used to be, and a new study led by University College London (UCL) suggests one reason why this discrepancy exists. In short, fear is contagious.

“The fear of crime can be considered contagious, because social interaction is the mechanism through which fear is shared and chronically worried populations are created,” study lead Rafael Prieto Curiel, a mathematician at UCL, said in a statement. “Even those that have never been a victim of crime can be seriously worried about it.”

For this study, the team created a model driven entirely by algorithms to simulate a population of 10,000 individuals. They were divided into three groups: one that belonged in an area of the “city” largely immune to crime, one that experienced minor and infrequent crimes, and another – the smallest group – that experienced the majority of crimes.

As explained in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, they found that the group experiencing pretty much no crime always felt secure. No surprises there, of course. However, when some of this secure group interact even just rarely with the group experiencing a lot of crime, the fear of crime suddenly skyrockets.

Newt Gingrich says he’ll listen to people’s fear of crime, and not actual crime stats, when it comes to his actions.

In fact, when the safe group interacts with the high-risk group just 5 percent of the time, more than 50 percent of those that never suffer crime then begin to fear it. Fascinatingly, even a clear decrease in crime rates have pretty much no effect on the fear of crime.

The team’s work shows that it only takes a very small amount of crime, or the highlighting of a few stories related to crime, to cause fear levels to spike “disproportionately”.

This may not come as a surprise. After all, fear is an emotion that isn’t always driven by logical conclusions. The fear of ghosts may be at an all-time high in some places, but that doesn’t mean it’s warranted.

Sadly, this study shows how easy it is for politicians to manipulate the public into making them think the country is in a terrible state, when it really isn’t. It’s a shame that this sounds so familiar.

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