Effects of signals of disorder on fear of crime in real and virtual environments

Toet, A., & van Schaik, M. G.

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Toet, A., & van Schaik, M. G. (2012). Effects of signals of disorder on fear of crime in real and virtual environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32, 260–276. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.04.001

Ecological Validity , Fear Of Crime , Public Disorder , Public Safety , Simulation , Virtual Environment

Despite the fact that virtual environments are increasingly deployed to study the relation between urban planning, physical and social disorder, and fear of crime, their ecological validity for this type of research has not been established. This study compares the effects of similar signs of public disorder (litter, warning signs, cameras, signs of vandalism and car burglary) in an urban neighborhood and in its virtual counterpart on the subjective perception of safety and livability of the neighborhood. Participants made a walking tour through either the real or the virtual neighborhood, which was either in an orderly (baseline) state or adorned with numerous signs of public disorder. During their tour they reported the signs of disorder they noticed and the degree to which each of these affected their emotional state and feelings of personal safety. After finishing their tour they appraised the perceived safety and livability of the environment. Both in the real and in the simulated urban neighborhood, signs of disorder evoked associations with social disorder. In all conditions, neglected greenery was spontaneously reported as a sign of disorder. Disorder did not inspire concern for personal safety in reality and in the virtual environment with a realistic soundscape. However, in the absence of sound disorder compromised perceived personal safety in the virtual environment. Signs of disorder were associated with negative emotions more frequently in the virtual environment than in its real-world counterpart, particularly in the absence of sound. Also, signs of disorder degraded the perceived livability of the virtual, but not of the real neighborhood. Hence, it appears that people focus more on details in a virtual environment than in reality. We conclude that both a correction for this focusing effect and realistic soundscapes are required to make virtual environments an appropriate medium for both etiological (e.g. the effects of signs of disorder on fear of crime) and intervention (e.g. CPTED) research.

Main finding
This study attempts to test the validity of the use of virtual environments (e.g., computer simulations) as a context for studying perceptions of physical disorder in neighborhoods by measuring such perceptions of equivalent interventions in analogous real-world and virtual environments. After "walking" through either the real or virtual neighborhood, participants indicated their perceptions of safety and neighborhood livability. Findings indicate that signs of disorder (e.g., broken glass, security cameras) were more frequently associated with negative emotions in the virtual environment, particularly in a sound-free experimental condition. These results indicate that participants may focus more clearly on negative details in virtual environments than in real environments, a consideration that should be taken into account in future studies.

Description of method used in the article
Participants (N = 120) were divided into six groups to experience a walk through a residential neighborhood. First IV: neighborhood type: (a) "real" neighborhood, (b) virtual neighborhood with no soundscape, or (c) virtual neighborhood with soundscape. Second IV: disorder: (a) baseline and (b) "disorderly" condition with evidence of "physical incivilities" (e.g., litter, broken glass, CCTV cameras, etc.) placed throughout. Participants identified such evidence and responded to questions related to concern for personal safety and mental state.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Crime and Aggression
3D / Digital / Datasets Field Observations Survey
Physical types
Geographic locations