What keeps Americans up at night? For three Chapman University sociologists, the answer turned out to be far more surprising than they’d expected.
Christopher Bader, Edward Day and Ann Gordon started the American Fear Survey in 2014 as a way of finding out whether Americans really understood the state of crime in the United States. Bader and Day specialized in criminology, and knew crime rates had fallen precipitously over the past 20 years—but suspected the average American was far less informed.
So they engineered a public opinion survey asking respondents to rate on a four-point scale how fearful they were of a variety of subjects. These included some of the obvious phobias, like snakes or clowns, but also more serious topics—things like crime, natural disasters, and political and economic issues. They also asked broader questions about the participants’ news habits and knowledge of basic science.
The researchers’ goal was to get a sense of where crime ranked in the vast landscape of fears, higher or lower than spiders or loved ones dying. In the survey’s first year, which polled 1,500 respondents, results indicated the highest percentage of respondents, at 56 percent, were afraid of walking alone at night. They also found that more than 50 percent of people felt unsafe asking for help from a stranger if they ran out of gas on the side of a road.
The results were almost exactly what the researchers anticipated. Crime was perceived as a pervasive problem. “When people become too afraid, they tend to isolate themselves, which has negative personal consequences” and also ripples out into the community, Bader says. If the group could combat the scourge of fear, it might bring positive impacts that stretched far beyond the individual.
Bader, Day and Gordon began thinking up strategies for disabusing the American public of their unsubstantiated beliefs on crime and safety, from publishing information on the lower crime rates to working with government agencies on how to inform the public about disaster preparedness. But one year of data did not a trend make. To really tackle the underlying fears of American society, the survey would need some longevity.
Which brings us to 2017, the survey’s fourth year and its most surprising results yet.
“This year we saw some big changes. Fear has really gone up,” Day says. “Prior to this year, there was only one item where the majority of Americans said they were afraid or very afraid, and this year there were five.”
And now, those fears have little to do with crime (or the paranormal). What the three Chapman researchers have built is an annual barometer of what scares Americans, and as with so much in the country today, it’s become intertwined with our politics. For the third year in a row, corruption of government officials has topped the list—only this year it jumped 13 percentage points, from 60.6 percent of Americans identifying themselves as afraid of government corruption in 2016, to a whopping 74.5 percent being afraid of the same in 2017.
“Our previous lists had more to do with disasters and crime, and that naturally lent itself to the type of messaging [about crime] we’re doing,” Bader says. “The list this year is fundamentally different in the sense that it’s showing a great fear of some of the things happening in this presidency.”
Fear of North Korea using weapons came in at number nine on the list, with 44.9 percent marking themselves as being afraid. The survey has been asking about nuclear attacks since it first started; this is the first year North Korea was listed specifically. “It’s very difficult to curb people’s fears about North Korea when frankly, North Korea and how it’s being addressed is very scary,” says Bader.
Another first this year was environmental concerns appearing in the top ten list of fears, of which there were four: pollution of oceans rivers and lakes; pollution of drinking water; global warming/climate change; and air pollution. And the survey was conducted before Hurricanes Harvey and Maria and the ongoing California wildfire crisis, with questions sent out from June 28 to July 7. The researchers ascribe the increased environmental fears to media coverage of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as coverage of the lead in the tap water in Flint, Michigan.
Topics that appear in the news are particularly highly correlated with what people mark as fears, the researchers have noted since the first year. This year the number two fear on the list (55.3 percent) was the since-abandoned legislation known has the American Healthcare Act, or “Trumpcare”—and the survey was sent to participants right around the time a bill on the subject was moving through Congress. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, fear of high medical bills ranked at sixth.) If the survey had been conducted after the Las Vegas shooting instead of earlier in the summer, the researchers are certain it would’ve caused a spike in fears of mass shooting. It sometimes makes it hard to get a baseline of what people are normally afraid of outside of these types of events.
As in the past, the survey sampled more than 1,000 people through an online questionnaire, this year conducted by SSRS, a leading opinion poll firm. According to Joshua Dyck, a professor at University of Massachusetts-Lowell and expert in public opinion, the sample size and 3 percent margin of error listed in the survey’s methodology both put it at above average in terms effectiveness.
And being an online survey rather than one conducted by telephone might even be to its advantage, Dyck says. “You’re likely to see folks being a little more honest [because there’s no interviewer effect].”
The survey results have opened up new opportunities for the Chapman researchers. They’re at work on a book about American fears, and have even adapted the survey to probe new angles into the sociology of fear.
This year they asked respondents whether the government was concealing information about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the South Dakota crash.
If you can’t recall the South Dakota crash, that’s because it’s completely fabricated. But 30 percent of Americans still responded that they believed the government was hiding things about it. Conspiracy theories are just another way of expressing fear, as is anti-Muslim bigotry, according to the researchers.
“I don’t feel a lot of optimism about the findings, but I feel good about the survey’s trajectory,” Bader says. The group is on their way to becoming experts on fear, and they plan to continue running the survey annually for as long as possible.
And even when the results are mostly doom and gloom, there’s still something fun to be found. This year it’s the paranormal.
“Clowns and zombies are both down,” Bader says. “But the survey was done before [the movie] It was released.”