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Anger versus Fear about Crime: How Common Is It, Where Does It Come From, and Why Does It Matter?

While a long history of scholarship has explored fear as an affective reaction to the prospect of crime, a much smaller number of studies have suggested that anger may be both more common and more predictive of punitive policy views (e.g. Ditton et al. 1999a; Johnson 2009; ...

Published onJun 26, 2021
Anger versus Fear about Crime: How Common Is It, Where Does It Come From, and Why Does It Matter?


While a long history of scholarship has explored fear as an affective reaction to the prospect of crime, a much smaller number of studies have suggested that anger may be both more common and more predictive of punitive policy views (e.g. Ditton et al. 1999a; Johnson 2009; Hartnagel and Templeton 2012).  This difference matters in that fear and anger imply different stories: fear can be personal while anger necessarily draws our attention to social meanings and connects to broader issues like race relations and racism.  We use a nationally representative survey conducted by the ANES to verify what we already know and then ask new questions about the potential sources and other potential consequences of anger about crime.  While personal victimizations are associated with fear, victimizations of acquaintances are associated with anger.  Anger appears rooted in both racial resentment and the racial context.  In turn, while the fearful are supportive of a wide range of approaches to addressing social problems, the angry are only more supportive of crime spending and in fact oppose social assistance spending.  Implications for research on affective reactions to crime and for crime-relevant policies are discussed. 


Crimes and emotions are intimately linked.  Crimes are committed in states of anger, or excitement, or boredom (Katz 1988).  Murders are popularly categorized as hot- or cold-blooded.  Victims experience terror and trauma.  The potential threat of crime—the perceived prospect of being victimized—evokes fear.  It also evokes anger. 

Fear and anger are fundamentally different affective states.  While fear is a personal emotion, rooted in concern and perceived danger, anger is a social emotion, rooted in perceived wrongs and violations of accepted standards of conduct (e.g. Averill 1982; Zeidner and Mathews 2011).  Both forms of affect may provoke action, though their sources and the actions they provoke may be distinct. 

It is striking, then, that anger has received relatively little attention as an affective response to the prospect of crime,[1] especially relative to the large volume of research on a different emotion: fear (see discussion in Ditton et al. 1999a, 1999b; Johnson 2009; Hartnagel and Templeton 2012). 

This differential focus matters.  Fear can be a more intimate and personal story.  Research on fear often focuses on personal characteristics or vulnerability.[2]  The consequences of this fear are also often personal—trauma or isolation, for instance.  Fear is also selective in its focus.  Women are much more likely than men to express a personal fear of crime (e.g. Warr 1985; Ferraro 1996; May, Rader, and Goodrum 2010), something that may interact with problematic stereotypes about gender and emotions (e.g. Plant et al. 2000) to paint a false picture of affective reactions to crime as a predominantly female phenomenon.[3]  Focusing on anger widens the lens along each of these dimensions.  Anger necessarily draws the focus to the social meaning of the crime, highlighting factors known to be otherwise relevant to popular understandings of crime and justice, including racial stratification and racism.  For this same reason, anger helps extend the possible consequences of affective reactions beyond support for particular crime policies to support for policies on broader but related social issues like race and inequality.  Finally, anger helps us cast a wider net in terms of who is affectively reacting to the threat of crime.        

We seek to address this gap and add to an emerging understanding of anger about crime in three ways.  First, we are interested in how common it is, both overall and relative to fear of crime.  Although a large volume of literature has investigated fear of crime, the smaller number of studies of anger suggest it may actually be more common than fear as a reaction to the prospect of crime (e.g. Ditton et al. 1999a, 1999b).  Second, we are interested in the potential sources of this anger, a topic that has not been addressed in criminological research outside of the role of the experience of victimization (e.g. Ditton et al. 1999a; 1999b).  Prior research has suggested that racial attitudes and the racial context are predictive of fear of crime (e.g. Quillian and Pager 2001; 2010; Drakulich 2012), but we argue that they may be even more relevant to anger about crime.  Finally, we ask why anger about crime might matter.  Prior work has suggested one consequence in particular: that anger may help drive support for punitive crime policies (e.g. Johnson 2009; Hartnagel and Templeton 2012).  Acknowledging that a punitive approach is not the only way to address crime, we also explore how fear and anger are associated with social assistance approaches to problems like crime, including drug rehabilitation and improving educational opportunities. 

Relative to prior work, then, we replicate two questions that the small number of existing studies have provided answers to—that anger is more common than fear and more strongly associated with punitive attitudes—and then address two new questions about the potential sources and consequences of anger.  The latter two questions are particularly important for understanding the implications of anger about crime for the prospects for criminal justice reform: the degree to which the anger is rooted in broader racial strife and may serve as a barrier to the adoption of less punitive policies. 

Potential Sources and Consequences of Anger and Fear

What does it mean to be afraid or angry about crime?  Where do these feelings come from?  Consistent with the notion that fear is a personal emotion, fear of crime appears to be the product of real or perceived vulnerabilities.  For instance, women tend to express greater fear of crime in part because of the very real risk of sexual assault they disproportionately face (e.g. Ferraro 1996; May 2001; Fox et al. 2009; Lane et al. 2009; Drakulich and Rose 2013).  Residents with greater numbers of black neighbors have inflated levels of fear when they believe stereotypes of black criminality (Drakulich 2012).[4] 

Anger is a more social emotion, rooted in perceived wrongs and violations of acceptable conduct (e.g. Averill 1982).  The meaning of anger about crime depends on the definition of crime.  If crime is a breach of the social contract—the commission of acts which violate widely agreed-upon norms—then anger about crime could be a necessary part of norm reaffirmation and enforcement (see, for instance, Garland’s 1990 discussion of Durkheim [1895] 1982).  Alternatively, if crime is an important arena for group conflict in which those in power use the law as a tool to help them maintain status quo group positions (e.g. Chambliss 1975; Hagan 1988), the role of anger is cast in a very different light—something tied to intergroup animosities which shape understandings of and reactions to group inequalities. 

Emotions—anger in particular—are a powerful component of colorblind racism, the ideology that eschews explicit racism while still justifying status-quo inequalities (Bonilla-Silva 2010).  The ideology pairs a denial or minimization of racial discrimination with an emphasis on individual responsibility and equal opportunity, all while ignoring the unlevel playing field.  Thus, the ideology views group-based attempts to address inequalities like affirmative action as unjust.  Stories—for instance about losing educational or professional opportunities to less-qualified minority candidates—are an important part of the colorblind ideology and “serve whites as legitimate conduits for expressing anger, animosity, and resentment toward racial minorities” (Bonilla-Silva 2010, p.98).  While theories of modern racism tend to focus on economic inequalities, crime and economic inequalities are closely related, especially in political frames (e.g. Drakulich 2015a,b; Lehman and Pickett 2017).  Black crime may be viewed through the same lens as black poverty: as the product of individual failings not historical or contemporary discrimination.  In this light the prospect of victimization by black people may serve as a similar kind of affective racial story. 

Fear and anger about crime may each have political relevance.  In general, emotional responses are how people engage with political stimuli, and provide a lens to evaluate new political information (e.g. Marcus 2000).  Fear is one mechanism for governing through crime, wherein politicians strategically stoke fears while claiming to possess solutions to crime (e.g. Simon 2007).  From a social-movements perspective, both fear and anger about crime may serve as motivating frames in a collective action framing effort, serving to inspire action and involvement (e.g. Benford and Snow 2000; Drakulich 2015a).  Anger may be particularly relevant here if it is tied to a sense of criminal victimization as not just unfortunate but also unfair or unjust (e.g. Turner 1969; Snow and Benford 1992; Drakulich 2015a).  Finally, given the strong connection between race and crime in public opinion and popular discourse (e.g. Peffley et al. 1997), fear and anger may both be part of boundary-making efforts (e.g. Lamont and Molnar 2002) when they reflect reactions not to crime generally but to a perception of crime as associated with particular groups.  Given the close connections between the politics of racial economic and criminal justice inequalities (e.g. Peffley et al. 1997; Peterson and Krivo 2010; Drakulich 2015a;b), people’s feelings about crime may be relevant not just to attitudes toward crime policies, but also towards economic and other social policies. 

In theory, then, fear and anger about crime may both have relevance to policy views, and each may have distinct sources.  Given this, the limited number of studies on the sources and consequences of anger relative to fear—especially given the apparently greater prevalence of anger—is problematic. 

Prior Work and Expectations


Despite the substantially larger amount of research and policy attention given to fear of crime, anger may be a more common and more intense reaction both to victimization and to the prospect of victimization (Maguire 1980; Kinsey and Anderson 1992; Mawby and Walklate 1997; Ditton et al. 1999a,b).  Anger is more prevalent across age, gender, and income (Kinsey and Anderson 1992; Ditton et al. 1999a).  This research has largely been conducted in the U.K. and not yet been replicated in the U.S.   

Table 1 summarizes our research questions and expectations.  We expect that anger will be a more common reaction to the prospect of victimization than fear.



The sources of anger have received limited attention in criminological work.  Victimization has received the most attention, with victims more likely to report anger than non-victims (e.g. Ditton et al. 1999a), particularly soon after the victimization (Ditton et al. 1999b).  Thus, we expect that recent victimizations may increase both fear and anger (Table 1). 

It is also possible that people might react to the victimization of a friend or family member.  If anger is a social emotion, it is possible that the victimization of a loved one will lead to anger.  Research on the effect of such vicarious victimizations on fear is mixed (e.g. Fox et al. 2009), and no work has yet considered an effect on anger.   

Prior work on other potential sources of anger is limited.  No work has asked whether anger about victimization may be related to racial attitudes.  In the U.S., race is fundamentally involved in public discussions about crime and social control (e.g. Beckett and Western 2001; Tonry 2011).  Due to the high prevalence of stereotypes linking blackness with crime in the U.S. (Quillian and Pager 2001), feelings about crime are likely connected to race.  This may be particularly true for anger about crime, as anger is associated with judgments based on stereotypes (Bodenhausen et al. 1994; Lerner et al. 1998).

Race may be relevant to feelings of anger through several mechanisms.  First, individual racial attitudes may be relevant.  We explore two related views of race.  Racial resentment captures key facets of modern racism: the dismissal of historic or contemporary discrimination in explaining the economic position of black Americans, the attribution of this disadvantaged position instead to individual failures like a lack of effort, and the resentment of efforts to specifically help black Americans as unfair given the assumed level playing field (e.g. Kinder and Sears 1981; Bonilla-Silva 2010).  Thus racial resentment is helpful for understanding opposition to racial policies like affirmative action as often driven by resentment towards people of color (Kinder and Sanders 1996).  Racial resentment may include feelings of anger that those of other races are getting what they do not deserve (Wilson and Davis 2011).  Research has shown these racial feelings to be associated with anger in general (Banks and Valentino 2012) and anger towards affirmative action (Kuklinski et al. 1997).  As recent U.S. crime narratives implicitly place the blame for crime on a permissive system that allows black people to take advantage of the welfare system and shun individual responsibility for crime (e.g. Beckett and Sasson 2004), it is possible that racial resentment is an important source of anger about crime.  Prior research has not explored this, though some work has connected racial animus or racial stereotypes to fear of crime or perceptions of criminal danger (Drakulich 2012; Drakulich and Siller 2015). 

The second racial view also involves individualistic explanations for racial social problems.  People may be more likely to react with anger when they believe a negative outcome is controllable and that people are responsible for their own behavior (Weiner 1993).  Those with prejudices may be especially likely to attribute these kinds of individualistic explanations to negative acts by outgroups (e.g. Pettigrew 1979).  To the degree that race and crime are associated in public discourse, it may be that those with racial prejudice are more likely to prefer individualistic dispositional attributions for racialized problems like crime, and thus react with anger at the thought of the potential personal consequences of crime. 

Finally, the local racial composition appears relevant to perceptions of crime.  Those living near larger numbers of black Americans tend to perceive more criminal danger.  This is true when the racial context is measured at the city (Liska, Lawrence, and Sanchirico 1982) as well as the neighborhood-level (Quillian and Pager 2001; Drakulich 2012), and remains true even after the actual threat of crime is accounted for (Quillian and Pager 2001; Drakulich 2012; Drakulich and Siller 2015).  Although most research has focused on the presence of black neighbors, the proportion Hispanic also appears to increase perceptions of criminal danger (Drakulich 2012).  To the degree that local racial composition heightens perceptions of criminal danger, it may also heighten affective reactions to criminal danger. 

This leads to several expectations about the sources of fear and anger about crime—although the dearth of prior work makes these expectations necessarily tentative (see Table 1).  We expect recent personal victimizations to be associated with both fear and anger, and for the victimization of friends or family to have this same effect.  We expect anger about crime to be higher among those who are resentful of black Americans and those who hold individualistic attributions for racial social problems.  Finally, we expect both fear and anger to be higher in areas with larger number of black and Hispanic Americans. 


Scholars have suggested that emotions play an important role in public support for crime policy (Karstedt 2002; Persak 2019).  Several recent studies suggest anger about crime may be related to punitiveness, and appears to have a stronger effect than fear of crime (Johnson 2009; Hartnagel and Templeton 2012).  The fearful may even oppose punitive measures (Cassese and Weber 2012).  Anger serves as a link between stereotypes about criminals and punitiveness (Côté-Lussier 2016).  None of these studies investigates the possible role of the local context in shaping punitive attitudes. 

However, the consequences of anger about crime may not be limited to punitive attitudes.  Policy attitudes toward crime and economic inequalities are often interconnected.  Conflict theorists pose a direct link: that punitive controls are used to address the labor instability resulting from maintaining severe economic inequalities (Chambliss 1975; Wacquant 2009) as an alternative to social welfare options for governing social marginality (Beckett and Western 2001).  The two also appear linked in public opinion, especially through their common connection to race.  References to crime and inequality were both central components of the efforts to exploit racial bias toward blacks among white voters in the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy” (e.g. Beckett and Sasson 2004; Tonry 2011).  It is not surprising, then, that people’s opinions on crime and economic inequality are strongly linked, especially through their shared connection to racial dynamics (e.g. Peffley et al. 1997; Drakulich 2015a,b).  Thus, anger about crime may be associated with opposition to social assistance approaches to addressing social problems—particularly those associated with social and economic marginality.  

Public support for punitive policies has famously been described as “mushy,” in part because of a lack of public knowledge about many specifics of crime policy (Cullen et al. 2000).  Rather than focusing on support for specific policies, we are interested more generally in people’s beliefs about where the government should be spending more or less money.  Consistent with prior work, we expect anger will be associated with support for increasing law enforcement spending (Table 1).  However, given the connections between anger and retributive sentiments, we expect anger will not be positively associated with spending on social assistance approaches to social problems—approaches that may reduce crime by helping vulnerable populations.  Alternatively, fear may be associated with support for any policies that may help with crime. 

Data, Measures, and Methods


To examine these questions, we use data from the 2008-2009 American National Election Studies (ANES) Panel Study, which recruited a sample designed to be representative of the American electorate to participate in monthly surveys between January 2008 and September 2009 (see Table 2 for the demographics of the sample and DeBell et al. 2010 for more details on the survey methodology). 

This time period presents an interesting opportunity to consider the relevance of anger about crime.  The 2016 U.S. presidential election was characterized both by general anger (e.g. Smith and Hanley 2012), and by clashes between candidates on crime and justice issues (e.g. Drakulich et al. 2017, 2020; Hill and Marion 2018).  The 2008 election, by contrast, was better represented by themes of hope (e.g. Finn and Glaser 2010), and crime was not a major issue (Hill and Marion 2018).  Similarly, in 2008, the national violent crime rate had been declining consistently since the early 1990s, whereas in 2016 a small increase in violent crimes received extensive political attention (Berman 2017).  Thus, while it would not be surprising to find that anger about crime was relevant in 2016, 2008 provides an interesting and more conservative test of our questions: how prevalent, how rooted in racial attitudes, and how relevant to opinion about public policy was anger about crime at a time when it was not a major part of the national political conversation

People react to the prospect of criminal victimization within the contexts in which they live.  For many Americans, the county will encompass a person’s routine activities spaces—where they live, work, shop, and recreate—and thus where they may be concerned about criminal victimization.  To this end, we obtained information identifying each respondent’s residential county, allowing connections to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) to capture the local prevalence of violent crime (known to the police), and to the 2000 U.S. Census to capture socio-economic and racial characteristics.   


Anger and Fear.  Respondents were asked when they think about becoming the victim of a violent crime affecting their own future, do they feel afraid?  A separate question replaces afraid with angry (both on 5-category scales).  Table 2 presents means and standard deviations for all the measures, as well as the waves in which each question was asked.  Respondents were asked these questions two times: in waves 15 and 21.  To preserve the correct temporal order, we use the later wave when predicting fear and anger and the earlier when using fear and anger as predictors.   


Spending preferences.  Several previous studies have examined support for crime spending as one type of punitive attitude (Barkan and Cohn 2005; Matsueda and Drakulich 2009; Wilson and Nielsen 2011; Drakulich 2015b).  The survey asked respondents about their support for crime spending three times: twice asking about federal spending on crime, and once about spending on law enforcement to halt the rising crime rate (all on Likert-type scales).  Three questions tap into support for spending on social assistance programs: drug rehabilitation, solving the problems of big cities, and education.  While the initial plan was to study support for spending on each of these policies separately, the responses were highly interconnected, especially in their association with anger and fear.  Latent factor scores were derived from a confirmatory factor model using a weighted least squares estimator (which fits reasonably well: RMSEA=.03; CFI=.97; SRMR=.03; χ2 not significant).    

Victimization.  Respondents were asked whether they have been the victim of a violent crime in the last year, whether any members of their family or friends have been the victim of a violent crime in the last year, and whether they have ever been the victim of a violent crime prior to the last year. 

Racial attitudes. We constructed two related measures of racial attitudes.  The first is racial resentment.  The measure, frequently used in work on symbolic racism (e.g. Henry and Sears 2002), consists of responses to four statements: “Blacks have gotten less than they deserve” (reverse-coded), “Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up—Blacks should do the same without any special favors,” “it's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites,” and “generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class” (reverse-coded). 

The second taps into preferences for individualistic attributions for a racial social problem,[5] asking whether people blame racial inequalities on individual failings versus discrimination.  Respondents were asked how important they considered a series of potential explanations for why it is that “in America today blacks tend to have worse jobs and lower incomes than whites do.”  Five of these responses were used as indicators of explanations based on discrimination or the social structure, including employers being biased, differences in educational opportunities, government policies helping whites more, and historical and contemporary discrimination (α=.87).  Three responses were used to capture explanations focused on dispositional qualities: that whites have more in-born ability to learn, that blacks don’t work as hard, and that blacks choose low-paying jobs (α=.74).  This paper is interested in those who favor dispositional explanations over those rooted in discrimination or social structure, so a measure was created which reflects the degree to which respondents were more supportive of dispositional than of discrimination or structural explanations (the difference in the average ratings).

Politics. We control for self-identification as conservative over liberal and as Republican over Democrat. 

Individual controls.  The analyses also include measures of gender, age (as tens of years), marital status, educational attainment, income (as tens of thousands of dollars), and unemployment. 

County context.  Based on prior theory and exploratory factor analysis, several measures of county context were created.  Socioeconomic context is captured by the proportion of families below poverty and the proportion of unemployed working-age adults (correlated at .82).  Residential instability is captured by the proportion renters and the proportion living in a different residence five years earlier (correlated at .40).  Both measures are averages of standardized variables.  Also included are the proportion non-Hispanic African American and the proportion Hispanic. 

The violent crime context is captured as the average yearly number of violent crimes (murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults) per 10,000 residents from 1999-2001 (designed to reflect the same time period captured by the census variables—exploratory work using more recent crime measures did not substantively change the results).  A control identifies the proportion of the county population for which crime data is not available.   


We employ a complex sample design weighting scheme to account for factors affecting selection probability and post-stratification adjustments to address non-response bias and panel attrition, assuring the data match population benchmarks for sex, region, age, race-ethnicity, and educational attainment.  We use the wave 21 cumulative late panel weight (DeBell et al. 2010). 

Most variables of interest had very little missing data—among the substantive measures, only anger (1.3 percent) and county crime (3.4 percent) had more than 1 percent of cases missing.  Among the controls, only marital status (6.9 percent missing) and Republican identification (12.7 percent missing) had more than 1 percent of cases missing.  Despite the relatively small amount of missing data, to be conservative we employed a multiple imputation strategy (Allison 2002), which does not depend on the assumption that data are missing completely at random, rather that the data are missing at random after controlling for other variables in the analysis.  To this end, 40 data sets were imputed in a process that included several auxiliary variables (including homeownership and retirement status) to add information and increase efficiency.  Table 2 reports descriptive statistics for the non-missing cases, while the other tables reflect the imputation. 

One of our substantive questions involves the influence of county-level characteristics—in particular the racial composition—on individual fear and anger.  The nationally representative sample includes 1572 respondents in 756 counties.  One advantage of this distribution of respondents over counties is the large number—and wide diversity—of county contexts in which respondents lived.  A disadvantage is that many counties have relatively few respondents (roughly a third have only one).  This is a common issue in multi-level work—a trade-off exists between the number of groups and respondents within groups.  However, simple regression models assuming independent errors are still not appropriate.  As such, we estimate multi-level random-intercept models, treating fear and anger as ordinal and the policy spending preference factor scores as continuous. 

Fear and anger about crime are both captured by single relatively simple questions, which are attitudinal rather than clinical.  Specifically, they capture affective reactions to the prospect of violent victimization. Fear or anger about crime are more complicated and multi-dimension than can be captured in single questions, and we encourage future confirmatory work exploring more varied and nuanced measures of both affective states. 

Finally, though the study makes use of the panel design to ensure that causes are measured temporally prior to effects, a longitudinal design is not possible for our specific research questions.  In this light, we see our analyses as exploratory rather than causal. 



The first empirical question is simple: which affective reaction to the prospect of victimization is more common?  The results are clear.  Figure 1 presents the proportion of respondents reporting they were “very” or “extremely” afraid or angry.  In each wave, around ten percent of respondents reported being very or extremely afraid at the prospect of victimization in contrast to the roughly one quarter of respondents who reported being very or extremely angry at the prospect of victimization.  In other words, within each wave respondents expressed significantly more anger than fear, while expressing similar amounts of fear and anger, respectively, across waves.    



The second set of empirical questions involve the potential sources of anger.  The first two columns of Table 3 present basic (ordinal, mutli-level) bivariate relationships between the two measures of affect and some of the potential sources of these feelings.  Not surprisingly, fear and anger about the possibility of victimization are positively associated.  Recent personal and vicarious victimizations are associated with increased fear, while only vicarious victimizations are associated with anger.  Consistent with our expectations, views of race that support status quo group positions—racial resentment and a preference for individualistic explanations for racial inequalities—are associated with anger but not fear.  Both fear and anger are more common in counties with larger black and Hispanic communities. 


Table 4 presents coefficients from ordinal random intercept models predicting fear and anger as responses to the prospect of victimization—anger is our main interest, but we include an identical model of fear for comparison.[6]  Among the demographic controls, women are more likely to express fear but not anger at the prospect of victimization.[7]  Younger respondents, those with fewer years of education, and people with lower incomes were more likely to report anger but not more likely to report fear.  Both fear and anger are more common among Hispanic relative to white respondents, while anger is less likely among black respondents.    


People who have recently had a friend or family member violently victimized were much more likely to be both afraid and angry—the odds of being fearful or angry were two times greater for this group. Those who were recently personally victimized were more likely to report being fearful but not angry. 

Those who hold racial resentment towards black Americans are more likely to feel anger about crime.  While those who prefer individualistic frames of racial social problems are generally more likely to report being angry about crime, this effect disappears when racial resentment is controlled for.  Interestingly, racial resentment also is positively associated with fear of crime, despite not having a significant bivariate relationship.  Exploratory analyses suggest a suppressor effect involving sex: female respondents were less racially resentful but more likely to report fear.  Once this relationship is accounted for, a more general positive relationship between racial resentment and fear emerges.

Finally, among measures of the community context, it does not appear that the county-level violent crime rate is important to either fear or anger about crime.  However, those who live in counties with a larger proportion of black or Hispanic residents were more likely to report both anger and fear about the prospect of victimization.

In sum, the sources of anger and fear appear relatively similar.  Both are more common among those who have racial resentments, and both are more common among those who live near greater numbers of black and Hispanic neighbors.  Both are also common reactions to the recent violent victimization of a friend or family member.  On the other hand, recent personal violent victimizations are associated with fear but not anger. 


The final questions involve the potential consequences of fear and anger for how people think the government should be spending to address social problems.  For reference, the third and fourth columns of Table 3 provides correlations between the spending preferences and the key predictors.  Table 5 presents coefficients, standard errors, and standardized coefficients from random intercept models for two types of spending preferences: spending on crime and law enforcement, and spending on social assistance programs such as drug rehabilitation, education, and assistance to big cities. 


The results suggest that women are more likely than men to support both types of spending.  Older respondents were more in favor of law enforcement approaches and less in favor of social assistance.  Those with more education were less likely to support law enforcement spending.  Those who have friends or family members who have recently been victimized were more in favor of law enforcement spending.  Not surprisingly, those who identify as more conservative and Republican are far less likely to support social assistance spending, while politics are not associated with law enforcement spending.  Those with racial resentments tended to favor less spending on both law enforcement and social assistance approaches to social problems.

Both those who are afraid and those who are angry at the prospect of victimization are more likely to support law enforcement spending, though anger appears to have a slightly larger effect.  The fearful are also more likely to support social assistance approaches to social problems.  However, anger was associated with supporting decreased spending on social assistance programs Accounting for individual characteristics, only one county-level characteristic appears important: those who live in counties with larger African American residents are more supportive of law enforcement spending. 

Discussion and Conclusion

Anger about crime has received far less attention than fear of crime.  We confirm two key findings from the small number of prior studies on anger.  First, anger is indeed more commonly reported than fear in reference to the prospect of victimization among American respondents.[8]  Second, anger appears to be an important source of support for more punitive approaches to crime control—specifically spending on law enforcement. 

This work also extends prior knowledge regarding anger about crime in several important ways.  The first few involve the sources of anger about crime.  First, while the recent personal experience of victimization is associated with more fear, it is unassociated with anger.  Instead, anger is more common among vicarious victims.  Second, in a simple bivariate sense, anger but not fear is more likely among those with racial resentments and among those who prefer individual attributions for racial social problems.  When considered together, racial resentment appears the best direct predictor of anger about crime among these two highly interrelated sets of views. 

In the simplest reading, this appears consistent with the general view that fear is a personal emotion, rooted in assessments of danger, while anger is a social emotion, rooted in perceived injustices and norm violations (e.g. Averill 1982; Zeidner and Matthews 2011).  Fear, however, may be more complicated than it first appears.  While recent personal victimizations increase fear, so do vicarious victimizations.  Most significantly, fear is more likely among those racially resentful of black Americans, but this relationship is hidden behind a suppressor effect related to sex: women are overall less likely to be racially resentful and more likely to express fear. 

Prior work—confirmed here—found that fear of crime is more common in areas with greater proportions of non-white residents (e.g. Quillian and Pager 2001; Drakulich 2012).  This work is the first to report that anger, too, is more common in areas with larger numbers of Black and Hispanic residents—even after controlling for the actual prevalence of violent crime.

Finally, this work also expands our understanding of the potential consequences of feelings about crime.  Those who are fearful at the prospect of victimization appear open to any kind of spending that may address social problems—both law enforcement and social assistance approaches.  In contrast, those who are angry at the prospect of victimization were only more likely to support spending on law enforcement approaches, and in fact supported decreasing spending on social assistance programs like education, drug rehabilitation, and assistance for solving the problems of big cities.    

In short, shifting the focus from fear to anger as the primary affective response to the threat of crime orients us to different potential sources and consequences. 


These findings have interesting implications for several different areas.  First, and most simply, this work has implications for the prospects of criminal justice reform and more broadly for policy efforts to combat crime and inequalities.  Both fear and anger appear associated with support for spending more on direct approaches to crime control.[9]  Fear may also open people up to alternative approaches to addressing social problems like crime, including spending on education and drug programs.  Anger, by contrast, appears to harden people against such approaches.   

Anger may also be a key to understanding the link between racism, perceptions of crime, and punitiveness.  Understanding this link is important given the inflated link between race and crime in the popular imagination (e.g. Quillan and Pager 2001) and the racial disproportionalities in exposure to harsh criminal justice policies (e.g. Rosich 2007; Peterson and Krivo 2010; Tonry 2011).   Modern theories of racism emphasize a purposeful dismissal of historic and contemporary claims of discrimination, blaming inequalities instead on individual failings.  This individualistic attribution combines with crime stereotypes to form a popular image of crime as disproportionately black and rooted in personal failings.  Thus, the primary reaction to the prospect of victimization is not fear of the act itself, but anger at the thought of suffering the consequences of someone else’s failing.  The links to views of economic inequalities may be mutually reinforcing: criminal involvement emphasizes the unworthiness of calls for the amelioration of economic inequalities, where the thought of such efforts provoke both resentment and anger (e.g. Drakulich 2015a). 

This work also has obvious implications for understanding emotions in crime and justice processes (e.g. Karstedt et al. 2011).  Criminologists have long been interested in the social consequences of seemingly personal reactions to a fear of crime, including withdrawing from local social life and interactions or attempting to flee areas altogether (e.g. Skogan 1986; Liska et al. 1988; Ferraro 1995; Miethe 1995; Rader et al. 2007).  Anger appears to have both social sources and explicitly social consequences, including strong feelings about how shared funds should be disbursed to address social problems.  We recommend future work continuing to explore both fear and anger about crime.  Altruistic fear is more common than personal fear (e.g. Warr and Ellison 2000; Drakulich 2015c), and the effect of vicarious victimization on anger suggests this may be true of anger as well.  Relatedly, this research has noted a link between fear for partners and gun ownership (e.g. Warr and Ellison 2000; Drakulich 2015c).  Anger may also play a role here.  Finally, anger has interesting implications for work on empathy (e.g. Unnever and Cullen 2009).  If punitiveness is rooted in a lack of empathy for the stereotypical image we construct of offenders, when the image is based on racialized notions of individual responsibility for such crimes, anger appears to be the alternative affective reaction.  In fact, empathic responses appear dependent on a person being perceived as acting fairly (Singer et al. 2006), the same root we find for reacting instead with anger. 

Finally, our findings may shed light on the current political mood in the U.S. related to race and crime.  Crime dropped precipitously over the 1990s and largely held steady through the 2000s (e.g Truman and Planty 2012).  Neither major party candidate talked much about crime in the 2008 election, one characterized affectively more by hope than anger.  Appropriately, few people expressed fear about victimization.  However, many more expressed anger.  The angry were not more likely to have been recently victimized or to live in high-crime places.  Instead, this anger appeared rooted in racial resentment of and a proximity to black Americans.  In turn, this anger was associated with a support for law enforcement efforts to address crime and an opposition to social assistance programs that might address social problems though less punitive means.

In 2016, support for presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared rooted in a general sense of ressentiment (Scheler 1972; Hochschild 2016) as well as specific racial, ethnic, and nationalist resentments (e.g. Drakulich et al. 2017; Hooghe and Dassonneville 2018; Smith and Hanley 2018).  Racial affect—particularly anger and resentment—appeared central to his campaign (e.g. Smith and Hanley 2018).  The campaign also took advantage of a small increase in the national violent crime rate as well as larger increases in specific cities like Chicago—often framed in explicitly racial terms—to stoke anger and fear about crime (e.g. Alcindor 2016; Fields 2016).  In response to the civil rights activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, both anger about crime and support for law enforcement appeared to function as racial dog whistles, signaling to those concerned with the threats to the racial status quo (López 2014; Fields 2016; Drakulich et al. 2017).  While many political observers expressed surprise at what seemed like a sudden surge in racialized anger, our findings suggest all the key ingredients were in place in public sentiments at minimum eight years earlier.  Given the current political polarization—especially around race, crime, and justice—we have no reason to expect anger about crime will become less common or less consequential in the near future. 


[1] A notable exception is work on anger as a predictor of crime—for instance in general strain models (e.g. Agnew 1985; De Coster and Kort-Butler 2006). 

[2] There are obvious exceptions to this, many of them cited and discussed below in our paper—we mean this only a broad and simplistic summary in order to highlight what a differential focus on anger might offer. 

[3] A story whose problems are illustrated by research suggesting men may simply not be admitting to fears (Sutton and Farrall 2005), that men may feel more comfortable expressing fears for female partners of children (Warr and Ellison 2000; Drakulich and Rose 2013), and that women’s fears of sexual assaults are well-founded (Warr 1985; Ferraro 1996)

[4] Of course this kind of perceived vulnerability also has a social dimension.  Although work on fear of crime has disproportionately focused on real or perceived vulnerabilities, researchers have also connected fear of crime to broader social concerns (e.g. Jackson 2004). 

[5] Johnson (2009) and Hartnagel and Templeton (2012) use measures about attributions for crime rather than inequality in models predicting punitive attitudes.  Such a measure was not available in this survey for the whole sample, though we know from prior work that attributions about inequality and crime are related through their common roots in racial attitudes (e.g. Drakulich 2015a,b).

[6] A note on interpretation: an ordered logit model assumes that regression coefficients remain the same as one moves to different levels in the response, so the odds ratio represents the odds of being in any higher level of fear or anger versus the lower levels.  Diagnostics did not suggest multicollinearity was an issue in either model.   

[7] A wide variety of prior work has noted and sought to explain higher levels of fear among females (e.g. Warr 1985; Ferraro 1996; Warr and Stafford 1983; Sutton and Farrall 2005; May, Rader, and Goodrum 2010).  Females are also more likely to be the target of “altruistic” fears (Warr and Ellison 2000; Drakulich and Rose 2013).  That women do not appear to express higher levels of anger about crime victimization potentially has implications for the academic debate about the meaning of the connection between gender and fear of crime. 

[8] At least as captured by simple attitudinal questions measuring affective reactions to the prospect of violent victimization. 

[9] Additionally, while prior work has frequently connected views of race (e.g. Chiricos et al. 2004), and specifically racial resentment (e.g. Johnson 2008, 2009; Unnever and Cullen 2010; Pickett and Chiricos 2012), to punitive attitudes generally, we find racial resentment to be associated with less support for both social assistance and crime spending.  The key difference may be that the measure reflects spending on crime generally—the racially resentful may wish for criminals to be harshly punished, but they may not support spending more shared resources to do this, in the same way that they oppose any kind of spending on racialized social problem.


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