Cognitive Daily

Last week we asked our readers about their reasoning behind decisions they and others make about personal security. Are some of us just paranoid? Or do the decisions we make about security and safety reflect the real threats around us?

Actually, since this is just a casual study, we’re not going to measure real threats — we’ll have to use a proxy: people’s own perceptions of the threats facing them in their community. How safe do our readers feel their communities are? Here’s how they rated the crime rates where they live:

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Nearly 80 percent of respondents said crime rates were average or lower than average where they live — so actually there’s not a whole lot of difference in perception of safety among our respondents. Do their actions match these perceptions? Not so much. Take a look at how the responses break down for a few of the questions we asked:

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We asked how frequently readers did a number of things that are related to safety and security. For example, do you lock your car when it’s parked in your garage? Over 40 percent said they never do, while over 30 percent say they always do. Similarly, over 25 percent of respondents never lock their doors while driving, while over 25 percent always do. To those who never lock their doors while driving or in their garage, there’s a whole slew of people who look like they’re paranoid. To those who always lock, there’s a whole slew of people don’t realize the danger they’re putting themselves in.

For other questions, there was more agreement. Nearly everyone locks their car even for a quick trip to the store. A question of particular interest to me is whether you take your laptop to the bathroom with you if you’re at a coffee shop. I do, because I don’t want to get it stolen, but it always seemed to me that most people just left them at their tables. Not according to our results — nearly half of all respondents say they don’t leave their laptop on the table when they head to the bathroom.

So how does the perceived crime rate relate to these actions? This graph shows some of the results:

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There’s a whole bunch of information here. First off, it does indeed look like people who live in dangerous neighborhoods are more likely to lock their doors while driving, and they agree that it’s dangerous for attractive women to walk alone in their neighborhood at night (this was a controversial question which I’ll discuss more later). But if you live in a high-crime neighborhood, you’re much less likely to wear a bike helmet. I’m not sure why this is the case. Maybe people in dangerous neighborhoods think the danger of a bike crash is minimal by comparison. Maybe they’re worried their helmet might get stolen.

There’s little difference in the laptop/coffee shop behavior, with a trend towards not taking your laptop to the bathroom in high-crime neighborhoods, which was quite surprising to me. If you live in a high-crime area, wouldn’t it make sense to be more careful with your valuable stuff? People in high-crime areas are slightly less willing to walk alone at night, but again, this isn’t a very dramatic effect.

So how do our readers protect themselves? Very few carry weapons, whether it’s a gun, mace, or a taser. But many did say that they carried a cell phone for safety reasons. This depended a bit on gender and age:

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While women are always more likely than men to carry a phone for security, for women, carrying a phone increases every year until they are sixty, at which point there’s a small decline. Men’s habits are more variable, with 23-29-year-olds least likely to carry phones for security reasons.

We also asked readers whether they lived in an urban, suburban, or rural area. This graph shows how a few key perceptions relate to urbanicity:

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As you might expect, perceived crime rate increases in more urban environments. Respondents in urban and suburban areas are more likely to lock their car doors while driving compared to rural areas. However, willingness to walk alone at night didn’t change significantly, despite a much higher perceived crime rate in urban areas.

So clearly it’s not just the perceived threat that makes us behave the way we do to feel safe and secure. What might seem paranoid to one person is reasonable and prudent to someone else.

Finally, a word about the “attractive woman walking alone at night” question. Several commenters complained that this question reinforces stereotypes that some women “deserve” to be attacked or rape because the “provoke” men. I’m sorry if I created that impression — of course I do not believe this is the case. I’m aware of the stereotype and I was interested to see if it was present among our readers. It might have been interesting to ask the same question without “attractive” to see if the responses were different; however, I wasn’t able to change the survey in time to get a statistically relevant number of responses.

There was a significant difference in response to this question by gender: Women said that it was less safe than men did for a woman to walk alone at night in their neighborhood (3.3 versus 3.48 on a scale of 1 to 5). I’m not sure what that means with respect to the stereotyping issue; I’d imagine our readers are for the most part sophisticated enough to understand that looking “attractive” doesn’t mean that someone is provoking an attacker.

Comments

  1. #1 Mystyk
    April 3, 2009

    On a related note, if you haven’t read Bruce Schneier’s paper on The Psychology of Security then you really should go do so.

  2. #2 Donna B.
    April 3, 2009

    As for the safety of walking alone at night in a rural area, it’s not human crime that one might be afraid of. My Dad lives in a rural area and I won’t walk there after dark because of wildlife.

    There’s also a serious lack of lighting and a spookiness in the truly dark rural areas.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    April 3, 2009

    One slight confounding factor in the “lock car while driving” responses is that many cars have an automatic locking system that locks all the doors as soon as the car moves faster than some very slow speed (slower than I back out of my driveway, anyway).

    I don’t feel any particular threat when I’m driving around here, but my car doors are always locked, because I don’t have a choice.

  4. #4 GrayGaffer
    April 3, 2009

    Car doors while driving: unlocked if I have a choice. Specifically, there is a much larger chance of being involved in an accident than being car-jacked, and I rather want my rescuers to be able to get to me. But my wife’s Windstar automatically locks with no choice.

    Slightly related, the automatic engagement of the car alarm when locking the door on an empty car. I commute via ferry, and the alarm tends to correctly decide the car is moving. The ferry staff do not like that, so I have to sit in my car or leave it unlocked. I judge there is a higher chance of theft on the car deck since it is almost always empty. Cars without the supposedly discreet flashing LED (alarm engaged indicator- why?!?) are vulnerable.

  5. #5 Adrian
    April 3, 2009

    To those who always lock, there’s a whole slew of people don’t realize the danger they’re putting themselves in.

    I don’t see it.

    Locking the car, hitting an alarm button, or attaching a Club become routine and they take seconds. I don’t think that not locking my car puts me in much danger and even when I’m in very safe communities I’ll still lock the car because it’s a part of the routine and a second or two could save me a lot of headache if I’m proved wrong.

    There’s little downside to locking the door as a part of a routine and a lot of upside. I don’t think it’s warranted to paint this as paranoia nor to say that consistent lockers view unlocked cars as a source of danger.

  6. #6 mph
    April 3, 2009

    Specifically, there is a much larger chance of being involved in an accident than being car-jacked, and I rather want my rescuers to be able to get to me. But my wife’s Windstar automatically locks with no choice.

    My MINI Cooper automatically unlocks the doors (and activates the hazard lights) after an accident. Yes, I tested this feature experimentally.

  7. #7 doug
    April 3, 2009

    Cars without the supposedly discreet flashing LED (alarm engaged indicator- why?!?) are vulnerable.

    I believe that the purpose of having a “discreet,” but still very visible LED is to act as a deterrent to potential thieves. Even WITH an alarm you still don’t want someone to break into your car, so announcing the presence of a security system serves the same purpose as brightly colored skin on poisonous frogs.

  8. #8 Pamela Yow
    April 4, 2009

    I was surprised regarding your statement:
    “But if you live in a high-crime neighborhood, you’re much less likely to wear a bike helmet. I’m not sure why this is the case. Maybe people in dangerous neighborhoods think the danger of a bike crash is minimal by comparison. Maybe they’re worried their helmet might get stolen.”

    Maybe helmets are perceived as expensive or a “luxury item” in these neighborhoods. Maybe people don’t want to risk getting the sh*t kicked out of them for looking like a fool in a helmet (“tough” high-crime neighborhoods?) maybe there are more pressing concerns in these neighborhoods than “bike safety”

  9. #9 Donna
    April 4, 2009

    This is a welcome look at how society thinks of their personal safety. Common sense is all it takes. I am surprised to see how many women never lock their car doors or walk alone at night, Do they read the paper. I would like to know how many women carry a pepper spray or a personal alarm. Love the information Thanks for sharing it with us. If one person stops and thinks how foolish it is to walk alone at night attractive or not you are a target, then you did your job.
    Thanks Donna http://www.guardyourselfnow.com

  10. #10 gs
    April 4, 2009

    The bike helmets didn’t surprise me either, and I agree with Pamela. I will also add that I live in a low income urban neighborhood right now and it is very rare to see a biker or a jogger or anyone out walking a dog. It may be that occasional bikers don’t invest in helmets the way routine bikers do.

  11. #11 Donna B.
    April 4, 2009

    Donna without a B. asks “Do they read the paper?” suggesting that it’s possibly ignorance of the possibility of being attacked that allows one to walk alone at night with peace of mind.

    If I thought that everything reported in the paper was “likely” to happen to me, I’d be a weeping paranoid afraid to leave the interior rooms of my house.

  12. #12 Toaster
    April 5, 2009

    It should also be noted that low-crime areas tend to be more affluent, and as such also tend to have the infrastructure for bikers (e.g., bike lanes and bike trails), walking at night (street lights and gated communities), and joggers (sidewalks). It could be that the affluent low-crime areas simply have more bikers, and have more bikers than can afford a helmet, so it could simply be higher proportions of bikers acting as a confounding variable in your results.

    I don’t know what to make of the laptop-bathroom question, though.

  13. #13 Eric Lund
    April 5, 2009

    As for the safety of walking alone at night in a rural area, it’s not human crime that one might be afraid of.

    In addition to the chance of encountering wildlife (which Donna #2 mentioned in her comment), there is also the lack of sidewalks on almost all rural roads and many suburban roads. Often you have to choose between walking on the paved surface with the risk of being hit by a car, or walking on the side of the road with the risk of tripping over some obstacle (litter, fallen branches, etc.).

  14. #14 Tomato Addict
    April 6, 2009

    Locking your doors when you drive IS safety. In rollover accidents most fatalities occur when people are ejected from the car. Being rescued from a car with locked doors does not matter if you do not survive the crash.

  15. #15 Betsy
    April 6, 2009

    For me, locking my doors (car and home) is not only a security issue but a routine habit. To carry keys with the expectation of finding a locked door helps prevent being on the wrong side at the wrong time.

  16. #16 Kat
    April 8, 2009

    What an interesting article.

    Where I’m from the questions would most likely be:
    How many times have you been affected by crime? Car/house break-in/mugging/car-jacking?
    Do you have armed response from your alarmed home?
    Do you have electric fencing around your property?
    Do you drive through red traffic lights late at night for fear of being car jacked?

    The statistics are frightening.

  17. #17 Kat
    April 8, 2009
  18. #18 Theo Bromine
    April 8, 2009

    I’m wondering about the conclusions drawn from the “crime rate in your area” question. Where I live (middle to upper-middle class suburb of Ottawa, Canada), I perceive a huge difference in the property crime vs violent crime rate. Over the past 29 years, my house has been broken into, my car has been stolen from my driveway, and my son’s bike has been stolen from my garage. So, I have an alarm system in my house, and I always lock my car, house, and garage. However, I have no worries about walking alone at any time of day or night.

    (And by the way, Tomato Addict: If you are worried about surviving a rollover, it’s much more important to wear a seatbelt than it is to lock your doors. To those who say that they don’t want to be stuck in the car strapped in upside down: If your car rolls over, you can thank your seatbelt that you are alive and sufficiently conscious that you can worry about your orientation.)

  19. #19 GrayGaffer
    April 8, 2009

    Tomato Addict: “In rollover accidents most fatalities occur when people are ejected from the car”

    Isn’t that only if you did not properly belt up? Yes, ejections kill, but belts prevent them.

    NPR recently read a letter from the daughter of a woman who had called home after a rollover with the words “I’m hanging upside down, waiting for rescue. I’m fine. I love my Forrester”. Write-off, but she was fully protected.

    Helmets: even if you’re in a state with no helmet law, know that every time I came off my bike (~20 times) I ‘used’ my helmet. One look at the cracks and scratches, and imagining what my face would have looked like without the helmet, and there’s no question about it. So it has to be a macho thing, and I’m guessing that is more important in gangland.

  20. #20 RM
    April 12, 2009

    Comments about comments.
    1) Re: Cars with doors that automatically lock. If you don’t like this feature, it can be changed in some cars. Check your owner’s manual. On my 2008 Honda, it’s a series of lock button presses and ignition switch turn on, turn off actions, that rotates through a series of options. I can adjust whether or when to auto-lock; and whether or when to automatically unlock.

    2. To those without car alarms and/or leave their car unlocked. If you are a bit handy, you can buy a blinking LED that works on 12 volts, and a mounting holder, at an electronics vendor. Then install the blinking LED on the dashboard, visible when standing outside of the car, and connected to an on/off switch. Result: A fake car alarm indicator.

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