ANXIETY
October 31, 2014

Survey Catalogues Americans' Fears

What do people fear most? A survey finds It is not always rational...or reasonable.

It just wouldn't be Halloween without a good scare or two. Along with all the traditional ghosts and goblins, this year is expected to feature Spiderman, Catwoman, Maleficent and men dressed in lederhosen. Now that's frightening. Especially if you're the one who has to wear the lederhosen.

But what about the rest of the year? What are people most afraid of?

According to a nationwide survey, the top five fears of people living in the U.S. are (top fear first):

  • Walking alone at night
  • Becoming the victim of identity theft
  • Safety on the Internet
  • Being the victim of a mass or random shooting
  • Public speaking.

Less schooling and heavy TV watching were the two most consistent predictors of fear.

Because the survey was conducted a few months ago, neither ISIS nor Ebola made much of an impact. But the survey found plenty of other topics that frighten Americans.

The national survey, conducted by Chapman University, questioned over 1,500 adults from all walks of life. It asked questions ranging from people's religious background to their opinion of the FDA and FBI. But most of its questions dealt with what strikes fear in people.

One of the more curious results was perception of crime. Respondents said that crime, particularly violent crime, is on the rise, while law enforcement statistics say that it's declining.

“What we found when we asked a series of questions pertaining to fears of various crimes is that a majority of Americans not only fear crimes such as, child abduction, gang violence, sexual assaults and others; but they also believe these crimes (and others) have increased over the past 20 years,” said Edward Day, who led the crime portion of the survey.

“When we looked at statistical data from police and FBI records, it showed crime has actually decreased in America in the past 20 years. Criminologists often get angry responses when we try to tell people the crime rate has gone down.”

Americans do not feel that the United States is becoming a safer place.

Most agree that gun violence, Internet safety and identity theft are real problems.

But it is also true that people's fears can sometimes get out of hand. Who can forget Y2K, when all the computers were supposed to melt down when the clock struck 2000, plunging society into utter chaos? And another survey a few years ago which found people more afraid of shark attacks than diabetes, despite the fact that they were much more likely to get diabetes. Fears aren't always rational.

Another finding of the study was that less schooling and heavy TV watching were the two most consistent predictors of fear. So maybe watching a little less TV can help people live a less fearful life.

The Chapman University Survey on American Fears, including full survey results, is freely available.

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