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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.