July 12 (UPI) -- New research suggests fear of crime is contagious, and can quickly spread among residents of even low-crime communities.
"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," lead researcher Rafael Prieto Curiel, a mathematician at University College London, said in a news release. "Even those that have never been a victim of crime can be seriously worried about it."
Instead of measuring anxiety about crime as a snapshot, representing a static set of circumstances, Rafael and his colleagues set out to analyze how perceptions of insecurity change in a community over time. Researchers also wanted to measure how anxieties differ between victims of crime and non-victims.
Researchers built a model to understand how interactions between community members influence perceptions of crime.
Their analysis showed groups who rarely experience crime remain relatively secure when they interact exclusively with members of their own low-crime community. But only a small number of interactions with people more likely to experience crime can quickly challenge those feelings of security, spreading anxiety about crime.
The researchers' model featured three groups of people, each group experiencing varying levels of crime. Anxiety about crime among the two groups more likely to experience crime was less influenced by interactions with members of other groups or communities.
The findings -- published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A -- suggest feelings of safety and security in low-crime communities are surprisingly precarious. Even a small amount of crime can quickly inspire fear among the community.
"Fear of crime is not a negative feeling, in fact it creates healthy precautions, like locking the door of our house, but it becomes an issue if it is disproportionate and unmanageable," said Rafael. "From a policy perspective, we hope the findings of this study can be used to improve communication and knowledge of crime at regional levels."