What Makes Americans Afraid?

Understanding what makes us afraid will help you understand and work better with your financial advisory clients.

By Matt Richtel

Christopher Bader is a sociologist at Chapman University in Orange, California, where he has three times been the principal investigator on the annual Chapman Survey of American Fears. The survey asks adults about dozens of topics, such as nuclear war, pollution, volcanic eruptions and zombies, and then ranks the terrors in order of prevalence. Bader also studies religion and conspiracy theories, and he finds these big issues often intersect. The most recent survey was published in October. In an interview edited and condensed for clarity, he discussed the latest findings.

Q: What does your latest research say we’re most afraid of right now?

A: Government corruption. Sixty percent of Americans are afraid of corrupt government officials.

Q: Like Watergate-style stuff?

A: One of the things we’re learning is that there is a lot of interpretation about what corruption means to different people. It’s clear that people are interpreting that differently, because both progressives and conservatives are afraid of government corruption, and clearly they have different ideas of what they’re talking about.

Q: At first blush, that might seem to reflect the partisan political climate. But hasn’t that fear been with us for a while?

A: Correct. That fear of government corruption is not some sort of Donald Trump artifact; it’s been around since before Trump.

 Q: Do you have a theory?

A: I’ve always found that fears stem from uncertainty. That can take many forms. Think about a person walking down the street and seeing another person. What they’re thinking is: Who is that person; what do they want; are they dangerous?

When it comes to the government, there’s great uncertainty because the average person doesn’t know how it operates, but it has a huge effect over their lives.

In times of societal change — great changes in how the economy is going to work, whether it crashes or rises; big events like terrorist attacks — all of these events create uncertainty in the sense that you don’t know what your world is going to be like in a year. When people are uncertain, we see their fears rise in all perspectives, not just fear of government.

Q: So our fears are driven by a more general uncertainty that is finding an outlet?

A: Absolutely right. It’s not this one-to-one thing where I’m saying, “I’m uncertain about who this clown is, and therefore I’m afraid of clowns.” The uncertainty is more general.

 Q: Wait. Are you saying we’re afraid of clowns?

A: Clowns are something that shows up fairly regularly; about 6% of Americans say they’re afraid of clowns.

Q: So what else ranks among our top 10 fears from the latest survey?

A: Economic or financial collapse; Russia using nuclear weapons; the United States becoming involved in another world war; people I love becoming seriously ill; people I love dying; pollution from drinking water; biological warfare; cyberterrorism; and not having enough money in the future.

What this list looks like to me is how this list always looks: always some things related to current events, like what’s going on with Ukraine. Government corruption is always at the top of the list. Then you have these perennials, like people I love dying or becoming seriously ill. So some current events, and then it’s about death, illness and money.

Q: Since it seems so important in the survey, why this obsession with corrupt government?

A: One thing I would certainly attribute this to is the bifurcation of media. Since our survey doesn’t go back before 2013, I can’t answer questions I wish I could: How does this compare to the 1970s, or the 1980s, before cable took over? Now we have all these partisan channels.

Q: Is the media to blame?

A: The media gives us what we want: something to fear, the scary thing, the dark thing. That’s what’s going to attract our attention. Also, we have a huge confirmation bias. If you’re afraid of Trump or Hunter Biden, you’ll be attracted to information that reinforces the fear.

We also are interested in novelty. If someone is scanning headlines and sees one headline about a bar fight and another about Jimmy the Toe-Eating Serial Killer, the person will click on Jimmy, even though the fight is more common.

I guess it would be an open question: If the media is playing to our inherent natures, is that our fault or the media’s fault?

Q: By countless measures, the world is a better place than centuries ago — longer life span, more material comforts. Why doesn’t that cause us to be more optimistic and less afraid?

A: Absolutely, on all sorts of measures we are safer and better off. But there’s a term in sociology called relative deprivation, where you don’t gauge yourself on how someone was 20 years ago or in the next town over. You gauge yourself on who is around you — and if the other people in town have nicer cars than you, that’s your marker.

Q: In our previous conversations you’ve said that it’s not fashionable or welcome to talk about the positive things or how good things are. Why not?

A: When you’re talking about how good things are, that’s also suggesting that nothing needs to change. That’s a difficult conversation. For example, if you say that there has been some progress made on racial relations, that can suggest that you are not aware of recent increases in extremism or the need for much more progress. Discussing positive progress on any measure also goes against our tendency to be attracted to bad news and things that frighten us. Unfortunately, we’re just not good at nuance.

Q: You have also drawn a connection between fear and the erosion of religious beliefs.

A: The major organized religions are rapidly losing members, and what religion can provide is certainty. The Bible is a rule book: Here’s what’s right, here’s what’s wrong, here’s how you get to heaven, here’s how you get to hell. It provides you with a sense of certainty. When you lose that, on a societal level it can have a big effect, causing us to be afraid.

Q: What do you personally most fear for us?

A: Information tunneling and information silos. Algorithms. This is not a conservative or liberal or progressive type of thing; it’s happening to everyone. When I watch MSNBC I just see the reverse of Fox. The algorithms quickly figure out what you want, and that’s all people see. That is incredibly harmful. Every day, all we’re seeing is a broadcast that’s designed to tap into our fears.

Q:<What are you most afraid of?

A: To me, there’s this idea of fears and phobias, and the distinction is muddy. One of the things I am afraid of is getting needles stuck in me. I am that person who will put off getting blood drawn for as long as possible.

c.2024 The New York Times Company. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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