Just in time for Halloween a new poll asks what Americans fear most. It isn’t zombies or ghosts. These lists of fears and concerns are more than entertainment. They are a window into how we view the dangers in our lives.
Researchers at Chapman University, in Southern California, conducted a lengthy survey of adults from across the country then organized the responses into four areas of fear or concern, personal fears, crime, natural disasters and what they called fear factors in which researchers tried to figure out who has what fears and why.
In general, Americans think crime rates are climbing, when in fact they’ve been declining for about 20 years. (The decline has been dramatic, but some crimes have increased in the past couple of years, though not to 1990s levels. The recent upticks aren’t a trend yet, but might affect perceptions of safety.) And most Americans, while concerned about natural disasters, aren’t prepared for the very real dangers posed by them.
Law-enforcement data show the country getting safer over the past two decades as rates for violent crime declined, or for some crimes remained flat, but a majority of surveyed Americans are sure the rates have gone up. Among the crimes Americans think are on the rise are school shootings, human trafficking, gang violence, pedophilia, sexual assault and child abduction.
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This matters because broadly shared misconceptions about crime rates affect both personal behavior and public policy. Someone worried about stranger violence might choose to stay home rather than venture downtown in the evening, or voters might demand harsher laws if they feel unsafe.
Americans’ top five fears are:
• Walking alone at night
• Becoming the victim of identity theft
• Various risks of using the Internet
• Being the victim of a mass/random shooting
• Public speaking
Except for public speaking, the list reflects the kinds of stories that have high profiles in the news, and they get airtime and big headlines because they are out of the ordinary. Cancer, heart disease and stroke are far more dangerous, but weren’t at the top of the list.
It’s important to stay safe on the Internet and to avoid walking in truly dangerous places, but should they be at the top of people’s concerns? No. Eat right, exercise and drive responsibly, and you’ll have a good chance of living longer. But that’s kind of boring. People respond to more dramatic dangers. Sugar just doesn’t look that scary.
Here’s another list from the survey, the top five worries or concerns:
• Identity theft on the Internet
• Corporate surveillance of Internet activity
• Running out of money in the future
• Government surveillance of Internet activity
• Becoming ill
These are all things we often can do something about if we make good judgments about the risks they pose. You probably won’t be exposed to Ebola, but you have a good chance of contracting flu. You probably should get a flu shot and stay out of hospitals if you have a choice for reasons other than Ebola. The flu kills more than 30,000 Americans a year and infections acquired in hospitals cause far more deaths than the flu.
Natural disasters are frightening. In this region we face potentially devastating volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, though they happen infrequently enough that most people probably don’t think about them very often.
Americans listed these as the top five feared natural disasters (and their consequences):
• Pandemic or major epidemic
• Power outage
A power outage is not exactly a natural disaster, but outages are often caused by natural phenomena, like our fall windstorms. It’s almost November, so I’d better check my flashlights.
The survey found that despite their fears, only 25 percent of Americans have emergency kits ready.
The researchers found that most Americans knew they should be prepared, but just didn’t act on the information they had about preparedness.
The survey looked at the factors that affect which people are more likely to have various fears. A couple of things stood out as predictors of fear — having a lower level of education and watching lots of television.
Fear is necessary for survival, but it poses its own dangers when it doesn’t match reality. The value of this survey is that it offers a starting point for some mental and emotional rebalancing to match fears with realistic levels of danger so that we can do what we need to do to really be safer.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com