Wednesday, 4 November 2009

CCTV cameras don't reassure, they frighten

People are no more fearful of crossing a street with a young male skinhead in it than they are a street with a smartly dressed woman present, unless, that is, a CCTV camera is overhead. The new finding appears to undermine one of the key justifications for Britain's network of 4.2 million surveillance cameras: that they provide reassurance to the public. It seems that the sight of a CCTV camera can have the opposite effect, cueing the perception of a threat.

Dave Williams and Jobuda Ahmed presented 120 participants - shoppers in Hatfield - with pictures of a fictional town centre street scene. When the scene contained both a skinhead and a CCTV camera, the participants, aged between 18 to 70 years, reported raised concern about walking in the scene, compared with when the same scene was either empty, contained a woman with or without a CCTV camera, or a skinhead without a camera. In other words, it was specifically the combination of a skinhead and CCTV that provoked fear - neither had any effect on their own.

The presence of a CCTV camera seemed to cue participants' prejudices about skinheads, thus inducing fear. This supposition was supported when participants were asked to write a paragraph on a "day in the life of" either the male skinhead or the smartly dressed woman. When a CCTV camera was present in the scene, but not otherwise, participants wrote an account of the skinhead's day that betrayed their prejudices, for example one account stated that he had "outstayed his welcome in the cafe".

"Defending the modern urban landscape from a sense of undulating moral crisis and corresponding crime with visible technological crime deterrence measures may not always reduce fear of crime," the researchers said. "[CCTV] is partly designed to reduce fear of crime ... this study demonstrates that in certain contexts it can have the opposite effect."

CCTV cameras may not be the only form of crime-fighting paraphernalia that can backfire by cueing a sense of threat. In a North American study conducted in the late 90's John Schweitzer and colleagues found that a plethora of "Neighbourhood Watch" signs increased people's fear of crime.
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ResearchBlogging.orgWilliams, D., & Ahmed, J. (2009). The relationship between antisocial stereotypes and public CCTV systems: exploring fear of crime in the modern surveillance society. Psychology, Crime & Law, 15 (8), 743-758 DOI: 10.1080/10683160802612882

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


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7 comments:

  1. I believe there's a misconception in this: a smartly dressed business woman and a male skinhead do evoke different reactions in people, even crossing the street in public places. The presence of the security camera may allow people the feeling that it's okay to listen to those feelings of discomfort/dread without feeling as if they're the only one being "politically insensitive". Fear of people, especially in warranted situations, is often pushed aside in favor of being "respectful."

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  2. CCTV cameras can affect people in different ways because we all have different life experiences. What has happened in the past affects how we feel about certain things today. If for example the individual was recently mugged the CCTV camera might well be a reassuring presence.

    The Dave Williams and Jobuda Ahmed study says more about our association of CCTV cameras with crime than it does about CCTV cameras not reassuring the public. Initially looking at an urban street scene the subjects will think– this is a place I have never been to before but it looks nice. When a CCTV camera is added the perception changes of then neighborhood changes and subjects will think - hold on the CCTV cameras must be there for a reason. Then when their fears are confirmed by the addition of a perceived negative image (the skinhead) that creates a potentially threatening situation so I am not surprised with the result.

    You could achieve the same results as this study by showing a group of people a picture of a castle (for example) in daylight, then showing them a picture of a castle at night. In daylight the castle is an interesting historical building that the subjects might want to visit. Show them the same scene at night and it produces an entirely different effect. Most people are frightened and wouldn’t want to go there.

    The Dave Williams and Jobuda Ahmed study shows nothing about how people feel about CCTV all it proves is that the majority of people associate CCTV cameras with crime and the more dangerous parts of town.

    Working in the CCTV industry it is also worth noting that there are far too many cameras to monitor adequately anyway. We have many case studies where CCTV has demonstrated a Return on Investment such as St Pancras, Oldham and Warrington Colleges.

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  3. Along with the increased number of cameras in the public places, CCTV cameras are being used at work places to monitor staff. This is hugely controversial and is damaging to a practice that is already seen as invasive and voyeuristic.The use and prevalence of CCTV is an ongoing debate which will continue to raise.

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  4. I agree with Sean Slavic. I don't really mind having USA Security Camera watching me, it's for my safety anyway. If people are worried about their privacy, there's a cctv technology that can block out any private moments through camera sensors. I don't really get why people are more worried about their private life rather than their own safety. If your life will be put in danger then your privacy wouldn't mean a thing. If you have nothing to hide, why hide right?

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  5. Oh yes! CCTV’s have both the boon and bane. In offices it should not be used for spying at employees but otherwise. But in public places I think it is good. People feel safe.

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  6. Very useful information...thanks for sharing...

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  7. These are the devices which are made for Security purposes.CCTV cameras may not be the only form of crime-fighting paraphernalia that can backfire by cueing a sense of threat.

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