The One Thing Americans Fear the Most


A new survey has found that most of us are still afraid of the dark—among other concerns. 

(Photo: Rafael Elias/Moment/Getty Images)

What are you most afraid of?

It’s a personal question that brings to mind a number of unsettling images: spiders, ghosts, heights, public speaking. A new survey posed that question to a random sample of 1,500 people across the nation. The answer most often given: walking alone at night.

With the country firmly in the grasp of Ebola hysteria, that answer seems a bit clichéd. The research was conducted before the virus took over the 24-hour news cycle, so ask today and you might get a different answer — and that’s the point. “We seem to go through cyclical waves in this country where suddenly there is something that terrifies everyone; then it will fade out and a new fear will arise,” sociologist Christopher Bader, who led the project team from Chapman University, told Yahoo Health. “Regardless of what is going on in the news, our goal is to try to understand long-term trends and how fear tends to impact behavior.”

The top five things Americans fear the most are as follows:

  1. Walking alone at night

  2. Becoming the victim of identity theft

  3. Lack of safety on the Internet

  4. Being the victim of a mass/random shooting

  5. Public speaking

The list includes a mix of timeless fears — the dark and public speaking —and ones that wouldn’t have registered with people 20 years ago, such as identity theft and Internet safety. Serial killers and aliens didn’t make the list because “people tend to fear what they realistically might face in their everyday life,” Bader said. “These situations are very immediate to people, and they tend to scare them the most.”

Related: Hospitals Brace as Ebola Panic, Flu Season Collide

When people talked about situations that were less immediate — such as a terrorist attack or pollution — their language changed. Instead of being afraid, they expressed concern. “If you ask people how afraid they are of pollution as opposed to how concerned they are, you will get a very different answer,” Bader said. The survey team had to be sensitive to this distinction, he added, or they wouldn’t get an accurate portrayal of what is worrying Americans.

The top five things Americans are concerned about are as follows:

  1. Having identity stolen on the Internet

  2. Corporate surveillance of Internet activity

  3. Running out of money in the future

  4. Government surveillance of Internet activity

  5. Becoming ill/sick

According to the survey, people’s race, gender, income, location, and personal habits can all contribute to what they fear and how scared they are. Out of all these so-called fear factors, the amount of TV someone watches has the greatest impact. “Anyone can tell you that media plays a role in driving fear, but we were surprised at how important it is compared to everything else, such as a person’s religion, political views, income, or location,” Bader said. “Regardless of where you live in the country, how much money you make, or what race you are, your television viewing habits will most accurately predict how afraid you are.”

Related: What Your Personality Reveals About Your Health

The survey will be conducted annually so that researchers can draw comparisons and track how fear evolves and affects behavior. Bader agrees that Ebola would show up higher on the list if the survey took place today, but he predicts that it won’t be on the list when they survey people again in March. “By that time, there will be something new that is scaring Americans. The goal of this project is a deeper and broader understanding of fear and how people react to it.”