Over the past decade the word “fear” has become all too familiar. After 9/11 critics of the war on terror called it fear-mongering. After the financial crash of 2008, living in a climate of fear became the lot of millions of people who lost their jobs, retirement accounts, and homes. But what about the most basic fear, which undermines society itself, the fear of bodily harm, either through crime or terrorism? Walking the streets in countries around the world carries a real risk of being attacked. The incidence of kidnapping has skyrocketed in Mexico and South America. The shocking rates of rape have come to light in India. Religious factions in the Islamic world create havoc and death for ordinary citizens.
In the face of such violence, the prevalence of fear can have a profound effect on the health, well-being, and economic development: if a society is in a constant state of fear, it won’t produce anything good.
Since this issue has such strong implications, Gallup’s World Poll set out to quantify fear of bodily harm. The usual measure, police reports and crime statistics, aren’t particularly reliable, since what they report is how many criminals were pursued or caught. If a city has a lousy police force, it doesn’t catch many criminals, and thus it may appear that there isn’t much crime. (Ironically, if a reform-minded mayor brings in an effective police chief, and the chief does a great job at arresting more criminals, it can present the appearance of crime going up.) A contributing factor is non-reporting. Statistics don’t reveal the large number of victims who don’t go to the police after being robbed, raped, or assaulted on the streets. Sad to say, unreported crime is a major factor globally.
In trying to give governments a more accurate picture of crime and fear, Gallup scientists found one survey question that gets to the heart of the matter: “Do you feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where you live?” The answer to that single question tells leaders almost everything they need to know about their citizens’ sense of safety. People who feel unsafe are preoccupied to the point that their well-being deteriorates. Over time, fear worsens how their entire lives will turn out.
The results of our research are stark. We found that women in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, don’t feel safe walking just 100 meters from their villages, possibly because they fear being raped or beaten. As a result, they can’t walk to markets to buy or sell goods. In the event that their fear is lifted, these women would increase Africa’s GDP a little or a lot with their lost economic activity.
The same effect can strike closer to home. One of us, Jim Clifton, lives in Georgetown, an affluent neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Several years ago, Georgetown had a serious crime spree, and people started going home directly after work, and once home, they tended to stay in. As fear spread about walking alone after dark, spending on everyday things like shopping and dining out decreased significantly. The neighborhood’s economy suffered until law and order was restored through an ambitious effort by local law enforcement.
These are just two examples of fear’s pernicious reach. Leaders who want to dramatically reduce fear among their citizens would be wise to make the Gallup fear metric central to their strategies – our findings are as important, we feel, as police reports and crime rates. Here are some of the basic findings:
% AFRAID (to walk alone in their neighborhood):
United States 25%
Hong Kong 11%
Americans deserve to be shocked to find that a quarter of their fellow citizens are afraid to walk the streets. Gallup tracks the fear score of U.S. citizens nightly and finds huge variance by city. For instance, in the U.S., the three big metro areas with the least fear are Minneapolis, Denver, and Raleigh -- with about 20% of their citizens reporting they have fear walking alone at night. At the other end are Memphis and New Orleans, where more than a whopping 40% of citizens say they fear walking alone at night.
Fear is sometimes correlated with actual danger, but that’s not the real point. Fear is personal and subjective. It gains its power, as terrorists well know, through the perception that you are in danger. We feel that any government which believes in open communication should publish the fear index for their city or nation, aiming to start a dialogue about how to reduce the causes of fear. Just as important is to close the gap between perception and reality as far as risks are concerned. That 25% of Americans are afraid to walk alone doesn’t mean that one out of four of us are in danger of bodily harm.
Gallup doesn’t aim its research at endorsing specific solutions. A rigid law and order society like Singapore isn’t the same as the United States, nor is the enforced conformity of China. On the other hand, the perception of fear, as it arises in the individual, has known causes. People become more afraid when:
• They feel isolated and alone.
• Their surroundings undergo rapid change.
• Minorities and outsiders are labeled “them,” who are totally unlike “us.”
• Support structures begin to deteriorate, including police, fire departments, churches, and designated services for the poor and elderly.
In other words, a high score on the fear index calls for better solutions than clamping down on civil liberties and sending the police out on random stop-and-search patrols. For any leader who cares about this issue, we’ve built consistent sampling frames across 160 countries that represent the vast majority of the world’s population, and Gallup analysts again found huge variance in the hearts and minds of citizens by region.
Globally, the implications of this data are fascinating. Imagine how much different a person’s peace of mind is in Venezuela, where 74% are afraid to walk alone at night, or in Afghanistan, where nearly 60% are afraid, versus Canada (16%) or Hong Kong (10%). Think about how much more psychological energy a society has when people don’t live with chronic anxiety. In countries like the U.S., even under conditions many consider a climate of fear, one only has to witness how an anxiety level that is relatively low impacts entrepreneurship, innovation, health, and well-being -- all the things that make human development possible.