The study found the fear of becoming a victim crime often does not correspond to the likelihood.
Fear of crime is “contagious”, according to a new study.
Concern is perpetuated by the opinion of others and often it does not correspond to the actual likelihood of falling victim to an offence, academics said.
They suggested the findings help to explain how a “generalised” fear of crime exists in cities and countries with low crime rates.
Study lead Rafael Prieto Curiel, of University College London, said: “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.
“Even those that have never been a victim of crime can be seriously worried about it.
“Most studies about the fear of crime and perception of security are static observations of the current situation in a particular region or country.
“We wanted to find out how collective perception of insecurity emerges and changes over time, and how it compares among victims and non-victims of crime.”
The study, which is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, was developed through a mathematical model which simulated the perception of security among a population of 10,000 individuals.
Three different groups were established to mimic the distribution observed in a city: a large majority which is “statistically immune” to crime; a group that experiences a small amount of crime; and a small population that experiences the majority of crimes.
They found that when individuals who never suffer crime only interact with people from their own group, they feel secure.
However, only a small amount of interactions between groups is enough to change their perceptions of security.
Mr Curiel added: “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.
“From a policy perspective, we hope the findings of this study can be used to improve communication and knowledge of crime at regional levels.”
Official crime measures for England and Wales draw on two main sources – a large-scale survey and police-recorded offences.
The latest findings from the survey show there were an estimated 11.5 million incidents of crime last year, when experimental data on fraud and computer misuse offences are included in the total.
Stripping out the two categories gives an estimated tally of 6.1 million – a non-statistically significant fall from 6.4 million in the previous year.
By contrast, police recorded offences showed a 9% increase to 4.8 million. The increases driving the trend are said to reflect changes in recording processes and practices, although there have been smaller but genuine rises in some categories including knife crime.
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