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What America Fears

A new Chapman University survey reveals cyber-terrorism and threats to privacy are high on the list.
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Americans don't trust security cameras, because they probably feed to the NSA. (Photo: Jannis Tobias Werner/Shutterstock)

Americans don't trust security cameras, because they probably feed to the NSA. (Photo: Jannis Tobias Werner/Shutterstock)

Want to get a sense of how your fellow Americans feel about their nation, and their lives? Ask them what they fear. It's a remarkable window into the national psyche.

Chapman University has just come out with its second annual Survey of American Fears, and while you don't want to read too much into the rankings—the vast array of fear-producing stimuli means we're inevitably comparing apples and oranges, if not elephants and elevators—the answers are revealing.

Here are the 10 things that, according to the survey, we fear the most:

  • Corruption of government officials
  • Cyber-terrorism
  • Corporate tracking of personal information
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Government tracking of personal information
  • Bio-warfare
  • Identity theft
  • Economic collapse
  • Running out of money in the future
  • Credit card fraud

What to make of that list? For one thing, the survey of 1,500 American adults (which was designed to reflect the population as a whole) confirms the truism that we have a strong distrust of government. Note that fear of corrupt public servants tops the list, with 58 percent of respondents saying they were either afraid or very afraid of this phenomenon.

Just missing the top 10 (at Number 11) is "gun control," with 36.5 percent saying they were afraid or very afraid of it. This helps explains why it's so difficult to get even common-sense measures passed into law.

"Obamacare" is close behind, with 35.7 percent of Americans saying they are afraid of that new government program. Apparently the idea of more people having medical insurance is oddly terrifying to more than one-third of the population.

The fact that whites will soon no longer be a majority in the country was far down on the list, with only 18.2 percent of respondents saying they found that scary or very scary. But that only shows the limitations of this sort of survey. I'm willing to bet changing racial demographics are a conscious or unconscious factor in a number of other responses.

"The 2014 survey data shows us the top fears are heavily based in economic and 'big brother' type issues."

Fear of crime is lower than I would have expected, especially given the carnage that dominates local television news. Only 15.8 percent said they were afraid or very afraid of being mugged, while 16.4 percent expressed fear of walking alone at night. (So why do we need access to assault rifles?)

Fear of a terrorist attack has apparently waned in the years since 9/11. Although high on the list (at number four), only 44.4 percent of respondents said they were afraid or very afraid of such an event.

"Cyber-terrorism" scored slightly higher, at 44.8 percent, as did "corporate tracking of personal data," at 44.6 percent. "Government tracking of personal data" was close behind, with 41.4 percent responding they were afraid or very afraid this is taking place.

"The 2014 survey data shows us the top fears are heavily based in economic and 'big brother' type issues," commented Chapman University sociologist Christopher Bader, one of the survey's principal investigators. "People often fear what they cannot control, and technology and the future of our economy are two aspects of life that Americans find very unpredictable at the moment."

While that's a reasonable response, a number of the statistics collected here suggest we are living in denial. While 39.2 percent of Americans fear a general economic collapse, only 37.4 percent fear they will personally run out of money. Which of those events is really more likely?

In addition, "We found a major disconnect between people's expectations of what would happen in a disaster, and the reality of a disaster's aftermath," noted Chapman University political scientist Ann Gordon, another principal investigator. "The number one excuse given by Americans for not having an emergency kit (which 72 percent of respondents admitted they did not possess) is that they expect first responders to come to their aid immediately. This is an unrealistic belief in the wake of a natural disaster."

On a more esoteric level, fear of reptiles (at 33 percent) easily beat out fear of clowns (6.8 percent). You can come out of hiding now, Bozo.

Perhaps the most depressing finding is that, even with all the efforts by scientists to educate the public about one genuinely scary trend, only 30.7 percent of Americans said they are afraid, or very afraid, of global warming.

Yes, more of us are fearful of snakes and lizards than of climate change.

Perhaps getting people's attention will require a study linking global warming to an explosion of the reptile population.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.