Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The 14 Worst Human Fears in the 1977 Book of Lists: where did this data really come from?

Probably the most commonly cited survey about fears and public speaking was reported in the 1977 edition of The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace. An article on pages 469 and 470 was titled “The 14 Worst Human Fears.” Their secondary source was the London Sunday Times.

41% feared speaking before a group, while only 19% feared death. Comparison of just those two percentages led to the common statement that more people fear public speaking than fear death. By the application of comic logic, Jerry Seinfeld (and others) transformed this into a completely different claim: that people fear public speaking more than they fear death.

There has been confusion expressed in articles posted on the Web by Bill Cashell and Melissa Lewis regarding where the data actually came from. In a blog post on April 17, 2008 Pete Miller even said: “The source of this list, no one knows.”

A few days later, on April 21, 2008 Lisa Braithwaite quoted Melissa Lewis as stating that:
“The problem is, there’s nothing to substantiate it. The quoted source for this ‘fact’ is The Book of Lists, which, even in current editions, shows a tiny blurb in the Sunday Times of London from October 7, 1973, as its source. In this article, no mention is made of who did this research, how it was conducted, who the subjects were, whether the subjects were a representative sample of the U.S. population—nothing!”

On my bookshelf I have a copy of the 2004 eighth edition of a popular textbook, The Art of Public Speaking, by Stephen E. Lucas. Page 21 says that:
“A survey conducted in 1973 asked more that 2,500 Americans to list their greatest fears. To the surprise of the researchers, the largest number of people – 41 percent – listed speaking before a group among their greatest fears. (Ref. 8)”
Lucas referred to “What Are Americans Afraid Of”, The Bruskin Report, 53 (July 1973). Since the 41% matched the Book of Lists, I suspected that this reference really was the primary source.

That Bruskin Report does not appear in Worldcat, the “planetary library catalog”. When I asked the Boise Public Library to find it for me they could not. (Materials that do not come from book or magazine publishers are called “gray literature” and might not be cataloged by a library anywhere unless they had very special interest in a particular topic.) However, the Boise Public Library was able to obtain the secondary source, the London Sunday Times article. That brief newspaper article by Peter Watson is titled “What people usually fear,” and it appeared on the bottom of page 9 of the October 7, 1973 issue.

Over at Boise State University, in a database, I found an article on page 4 of the December 1973 issue of Spectra (Volume 9, number 6) which also contained the list of 14 fears from the Bruskin report. The brief article on Fear said that:
“R. H. Bruskin Associates carried out a survey in April of 1973 involving 2,543 male and female adults. Respondents were asked to pick items from a list representing situations in which they had some degree of fear. The rank order of fears reported is as follows:”

That list of fears had results shown to tenths of a percent. All 14 entries round to what is shown in both the Sunday Times and Book of Lists, so the Bruskin Report clearly is the primary source for the data. At the end of the article it listed the street address of the firm as R. H. Bruskin Associates, 303 George Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08903. The list is shown above in a bar chart (click it to enlarge). So, a survey done by a firm in New Jersey had to be cited by a London newspaper before it found its way into an American book!

Which other fears were missing from that April 1973 survey? First, consider some everyday fears recited by politicians, like unemployment, homelessness, drugs, crime, racism, terrorists, communists, and socialists. Second, think of some Halloween subjects from horror movies like zombies, vampires, werewolves, demons, great white sharks, snakes, crocodiles, rats, giant squids, and aliens.

The movie Jaws came out in 1975, so by next year I suspect that sharks were “top of mind” and would have made any list of top ten fears. By the time the 1977 Book of Lists appeared the 1973 Bruskin survey actually was out of date.

Also, what about horror movies with combinations of fears, like Snakes on a Plane. Why hasn’t there been a trifecta sequel about Public Speaking to Snakes on a Plane? However, there is a Pickles cartoon about public speaking on a plane over deep water.

Why is this ancient survey result still being referenced? It got into public speaking textbooks long ago as an attention grabber, and then just stayed there. There was an article by Mary Hinchcliff Pelias in the January 1989 issue of Communication Education titled Communication Apprehension in Basic Public Speaking Texts: An Examination of Contemporary Textbooks. She looked at 25 texts, and found that 13 of them cited either the Book of Lists or the Bruskin Report. Pelias cited the second edition (1986) of Lucas. As I mentioned previously, the Bruskin report reference was still in the eighth (2004) edition.

The much more recent 2001 Gallup Poll data long ago should have replaced the Book of Lists, yet the old survey stumbles on like a mumbling zombie. Happy Halloween! 

Update   March 24, 2011

I found the same list of percentages shown in the bar chart also are listed on page 238 of Raymond Ross’s Speech Communication textbook (5th edition,Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980).

Dr. Ross also quotes the following paragraph from the Bruskin Report:

“About 46% of women have this fear, while 36% of men indicate some concern. There is little difference by age, but people in the $15,000 plus income group seem somewhat less concerned about public speaking. The more education a person has, the less likely he is to fear addressing a group. People living in the southern part of the United States seem to have the greatest fear while those in the northeast seem less concerned.”

Update    August 28, 2011

On August 14th I posted about another list of 20 Fears for a New Millennium, taken from data in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, that can be used to replace the one in the 1977 Book of Lists.


Update    March 7, 2012

Curiously, another possible statement from the Bruskin survey or Book of Lists - that almost as many people fear flying as fear death is not common at all. 

On March 3, 2012 I blogged about How many folks in the U.S. are freaked out about flying? In that post I discussed some recent surveys on the fear and phobia of flying - and other specific fears, like heights, and close spaces. (Bruskin didn’t mention close spaces, or claustrophobia).

A simplistic “Fear Combo Plate” approach doesn’t work there. You might expect that to get the percent of people who fear flying you could add the percent who fear heights to the percent who fear enclosed spaces, but instead more people fear heights than fear flying. Life is full of surprises!


Update   April 2, 2014

If you’d prefer some data from 2014 (that are 41 years newer), please look at my post titled YouGov survey of U.S. adults found they most commonly were very afraid of snakes, heights, public speaking, spiders, and being closed in a small space


Monday, October 26, 2009

Recent Slovakian survey details symptoms and how people fight stage fright

In July the market research firm GfK Slovakia asked a sample of young people ages 15 to 25 about stage fright before public speaking or important performances. This was one of a recurring series of online surveys (the GfK Young Monitor). They did not mention their sample size.

Only 10% did not suffer from stage fright. They asked the young people both about their symptoms of stage fright and how they fight stage fright. A summary of the press release is here, and a more detailed Acrobat version is here. Two bar charts describe the results. Click on either of them for a clearer view.

About 6 out of 10 people had stomach problems, and over half had sweating, palpitations, or a shaking voice. About a third had problems with forming sentences, or forgetting what to say. About a quarter blushed, and 2 out of 10 had shaking hands or a dry throat.

The more common of the 20 ways of fighting stage fright were quite sensible. The most common way (27%) was by breathing deeply. About one in 5 people did nothing because they realized it would disappear after some time, relied on consistent preparation, or encouraged themselves to think positively. Less than 5% relied on drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol. However, only 1% used stretching or exercise before speaking.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

More adolescents and young adults feared tests than feared public speaking

Do adolescents and young adults have different social fears than adults? They do. A decade ago the results of a survey of 3021 young people in Munich, Germany (ages 14 to 24) were reported. You can read the abstract here. The bar chart below shows the six specific social fears reported in Table 2. Performance situations/tests topped the list at 18.2%, while public speaking came in second at 13.2%. For that age range test anxiety is a big problem that affects about 1 in 5 people.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Heroic Forest Fire Story: Ed Pulaski and the Big Blow Up

Every region and organization has its heroes, whose stories are told to new generations. Here in Idaho one of them is “Big Ed” Pulaski, the forest ranger who saved a whole crew of firefighters from a firestorm back in 1910. Yesterday the Idaho Statesman had an article about yet another book which tells the story, The Big Burn, by Tim Egan.

Here is another brief version from page 21 of the 2007 book, Leading in the Wildland Fire Service:

“After hearing that fires had broken out in the Placer Creek area in northern Idaho on August 21, 1910, Edward Pulaski, a local forest ranger, came to the firefighters’ aid bringing food and medical supplies to nearly 50 crew members there. The men did not realize it, but they were situated on the edge of an impending firestorm and Pulaski was about to lead them from certain death.

Soon after Pulaski arrived, strong winds fanned flames toward the group. Nearby trees exploded into flame. Some of the men panicked and tried to make a run for it, but Pulaski stopped them and maintained order, promising the men that he could get them out safely if they would stick with him.

Pulaski had been working on this land for the past two years, blazing trails and cutting fire lines; he had an intimate familiarity with every contour of the area. His comprehensive knowledge enabled him to devise an ingenious plan of escape.

With thick smoke choking the area, Pulaski directed each man to grasp the shoulder of the man in front of him so the group could stay together. Pulaski led the group through the forest, restraining anyone who tried to bolt, and eventually bringing the group to an old mine tunnel [of the War Eagle Mine]. Although some balked at going in, Pulaski adamantly insisted that the tunnel was their only hope of survival.

Pulaski coerced all the men into the tunnel and ordered them to lie face down just as the raging fire approached. Pulaski stood guard at the entrance with his pistol, beating back any terrorized man who attempted to leave, saying, ‘I’ll shoot any man who tries to get by me!’

During their five hours in the tunnel, four men died and the rest, including Pulaski, lost consciousness. After the fire passed, the men began to come around one by one, and began to rouse the other survivors.

Discovering the body of Pulaski, still at the entrance of the tunnel, a man said softly, ‘Come outside boys. The boss is dead.’

‘Like hell he is!” Pulaski bellowed.

Though severely injured – temporarily blinded, with seared lungs and badly burned hands – Pulaski survived the ordeal. He saved the lives of 42 crew members, and his leadership that day provides us a legendary example of the effect of a strong command presence.”

You also can read a longer version in Pulaski’s own words here. It is a great story that deserves retelling.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Some college students really do fear public speaking more than death

Earlier this year Professor James C. McCroskey wrote a long retrospective article titled Communication Apprehension: What We Have Learned in the Last Four Decades. He discusses how he almost began his research on communication apprehension (CA) while teaching and working on his Ed.D. at Penn State back in 1965. Back then Professor Gerald Phillips was beginning to develop speech classes for reticent students, and had enough experience that he could recognize those who needed special help.

“…One evening I received a phone call at home from a Penn State psychologist. He asked me some questions about one of my students, wanting to know if this student was scheduled to present her speech the follow(ing) day. I informed them that she did. I asked him why he wanted to know. He informed me that they had just rescued this student from an attempt to commit suicide by jumping off the top of one of the highest buildings at the university. She had indicated that she just could not face having to give another speech. Needless to say, this shook me up. I had never noticed this student to be any more reticent than any other students. Obviously I could not recognize a reticent when I saw one! Years later, we learned that many high CAs are able to conceal their fears/anxieties. One cannot be sure what students are high CAs by looking at them, unless you have the skills equivalent to those of Phillips.

I talked to Phillips about this attempted suicide, and he expressed concern also. He informed me that there had been a number of suicides by students in recent years. He and I were able to get the administration to identify the students who had committed suicide and the enrollments in required public speaking classes. There were 14 suicides recorded, and all but one of those students were currently enrolled in required public speaking classes at the time of their death. Was this just coincidence? Possibly, but the odds are strongly against it.

In the process of looking at the lists of students in the required public speaking class, we accidentally identified a student who had enrolled for and dropped the class 12 times. He had a straight “A” record in engineering, but could not graduate because he had not passed the required public speaking class. Phillips located this student, got him into his reticent class, and he graduated…”

McCroskey and his colleagues went on to research CA in considerable depth. They developed surveys for spotting it, such as the Personal Report of Communication Apprehension (PRCA). You can find lots more about CA at his web site.

Flippant comments that nobody ever died from stage fright may be incorrect.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Public Speaking at The Office: Dwight’s Salesman of the Year Speech

In the second TV season of The Office there was an episode called Dwight’s Speech that originally aired in March of 2006. In it Dwight Schrute wins the award for Northeastern Pennsylvania Salesman of the Year and has to give a speech. His colleague, Jim Halpert, gives him some truly awful advice. Jim tells him that the key to being a good public speaker is waving your arms in the air, and banging your fists on the lectern - a lot.

Dwight give the speech, which here is shown revised into a phony 2008 vice presidential campaign ad. You also can view a black-and-white version of the uncut speech here. Much of the following script apparently comes from Benito Mussolini's "War Statement" and some other speeches made when he was dictator of Italy during World War II:

“[BANGS FISTS] Blood alone moves the wheels of history! [pause] Have you ever asked yourselves in an hour of meditation - which everyone finds during the day - how long we have been striving for greatness? [BANGS FISTS] Not only the years we've been at war – the war of work – but from the moment as a child, when we realized that the world could be conquered.

It has been a lifetime struggle [BANGS FISTS] a never-ending fight, I say to you [BANGS FISTS], and you will understand, that it is a privilege to fight. We are warriors! [Applause]

Salesmen of Northeastern Pennsylvania, I ask you [BANGS FISTS] once more rise and be worthy of this historical hour. [More applause, and Dwight gives a maniacal laugh] No revolution is worth anything unless it can [BANGS FISTS] defend itself.

Some people will tell you salesman is a bad word. They’ll conjure up images of used car dealers, and door to door charlatans. This is our duty: to change their perception. I say, salesman – and women – of the world... unite! We must never acquiesce, for it is together... together that we prevail. We must never cede control of the Motherland...

Audience: ...for it is together that we prevail! [Thunderous applause] [BANGS FISTS, REPEATEDLY]”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tongue-in-cheek guide to public speaking from Shaun Oakes

On October 13 Mr. Shaun Oakes, from Cape Town (South Africa), posted the following five tips in the The Shaun Oakes Guide to Public Speaking:

1. Don’t Bother Learning Your Material

2. Alienate and Antagonize Your Audience

3. Realise That People Want You to Fail

4. Repeat Yourself Often and… Repeatedly

5. Picture Yourself Naked in Front of an Audience

Shaun modestly claims to be Cape Town’s 23rd most popular blogger. He also claims to have a morbid fear of public speaking, clowns with supernatural powers, and the number 47.

Advising what NOT to do is an effective technique for getting attention and creating humor. I used it last year in a post about using flip charts.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What do you call this? (the mat puzzle)

A few days ago my sister called and asked if I knew where she could buy some rubber floor matting. She wanted to cover up a floor grating in her vintage house. They have several cats, so she wanted something that was washable.

I told her that we had something in our house that would work. It was a set of 3/4 inch thick, gray, high-density foam mats made of two-foot square tiles that can snap together via dovetails on their edges, as is shown above. In a presentation those two images would convey the desired meaning instantly.

I thought that we got those mats from a home supply store (either Lowes or Home Depot). Then I did a web search to find what they were called (and where they could be purchased).

Were they called dovetail, modular, snap-together, tiled, or anti-fatigue mats? None of the above! They commonly are called puzzle mats (or play mats). Puzzle mats are a sober gray, while play mats are brightly colored.

Some mats even come with finishing strips that snap on the outer edges to make them straight lines. You also can find puzzle mats at sporting goods stores (like Dick’s), where they are sold to protect floors from exercise equipment like barbells.

After a glance at the two images you knew exactly what product I was describing. Contrast that with the phrase “puzzle mats.” Based on hearing it, did you even get the right picture?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Unconscious nervous habits can drive people crazy

Nervous habits and gestures can drive your audience crazy. In this video clip of the cross-examination scene from The Caine Mutiny, Humphrey Bogart (as the captain, Philip Francis Queeg) keeps rolling and clicking together a pair of steel bearing balls. How many seconds did it take before you got irritated?

What you do with your feet can be unconscious but quite distracting. In his book Power Speaking; The Art of the Exceptional Public Speaker Achim Nowak lists eight different types of footwork: the shuffle, the sway, the cha-cha, the lean, the lift-off, the cross, the bop and the step-away. In the sway the speaker rocks from side to side, as if he was standing aboard a ship that is rolling in the midst of a gathering storm at sea. You can see descriptions of the other seven on page 27, if you look in Google Books and search under footwork.

What you do with your hands can be even more distracting. You can click a pen, or twirl it like a baton. Hair can be adjusted. Women may twirl it, or smooth it over an ear. Men can also stroke their beard or mustache. Women may fiddle with their necklace or bracelets. Men can adjust their tie or rotate their cufflinks. They also may put both hands in their pockets and jiggle keys and change. Chris Farley (as motivational speaker Matt Foley) kept adjusting his belt.

When I was young, I wore glasses with plastic frames. Even though I added foam pads they still tended to slip down on my nose. Every so often I would push them back up. Long after I had switched to wire frames with adjustable nose pieces that didn’t slip, I still subconsciously tried to readjust them.

The first step to fixing these habits is recognizing them. Either videotape yourself and view your speech, or have someone else watch you. You probably will be surprised by finding habits you had not noticed.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

An astroturfing comment about herbal remedies for anxiety

Someone with an empty Blogger profile of “A DiClementi” drove by and dropped (like a fresh dog turd) the following comment regarding my September 18 post on herbal remedies for anxiety:

“To cure anxiety attacks, herbs are the best medicine. No side effects, no giddiness, etc. Deep breathing exercises are excellent for anxiety and many people report positive results from meditation. Some other natural anxiety remedies to look into are St.John's Wort, SAMe, L-Theanine, and Tryptophan.


Astroturfing has been defined as: “Generating public excitement in a subject by posting anonymous comments to blogs, wikis and other public venues.”

It only took me a few minutes with Google to find a profile showing that Anthony Joseph DiClementi actually is the Managing Director of SociaTropin, which is, of course, yet another herbal remedy with a long list of ingredients.

On October 5 he also posted word-for word the same comment on a blog post by Caitlin MacKenna about Kava Kava: A Natural Anxiety Reducer. He is wrong about there being no side effects for kava, as I discussed in my previous post.

They first distributed a press release about SociaTropin on June 1, 2008. A few day later Arlin Cuncic commented skeptically on her Social Anxiety Disorder Blog at About.com regarding the press release, and in comments Mr. DiClementi replied by stating, among other things, that:

“For full disclosure, I am the Director of Marketing and a Co-Creator of SociaTropin. I have personally taken this product for nearly 2 years and continue to use it to this day.

I want to be clear that SociaTropin is not a magic bullet or a miracle pill; it won’t give you a new personality or make you a different person.

But it does contain over 20 ingredients that have been shown in double-blind placebo controlled scientific studies to: enhance mood, relieve stress and social anxiety, and increase natural energy levels. The meta-analysis supporting SociaTropin’s ingredient profile is undeniable.”

The 13 ingredients explicitly listed on the web site are: Rhodiola Rosea, 5-HTP, Sensoril Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Bacopa, L-Theanine (as SunTheanine), St. Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Cyracos Lemon Balm, Ginkgo Biloba, L-Tyrosine, Panax Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.), Bioactive Forms of Essential B Vitamins, Valerian, and Passion Flower. Under B vitamins they list “B6, B12, and other B vitamins”, but I am not clear if (or how) all this really adds up to “over twenty.”

I found Mr. DiClementi’s comment about his ingredients amusing, given that SociaTropin contains both passiflora and valerian. In my previous blog post I pointed out that there really is no good evidence that either ingredient is effective. Are the other eighteen (or more) ingredients any more effective?

As the Irish comedian Dara O’Briain says (at about 2:40 into the video clip I referred to in the previous post): “Get in the …sack!”

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dancing on the rim of the toilet bowl

This morning the syndicated Bob and Tom radio show (from Indianapolis) carried a comedy routine which began with a real Midwestern city name, and then added a mythical restaurant name. That city is Effingham, Illinois, and the restaurant is the EffingHaus.

They may have gotten started by splitting the city name to amusingly describe a menu item – the huge Effing ham sandwich. Then they kept going with the concept of obscenely large portion sizes and described the Effing huge burger, the huge Effing salad, the Effing huge omelet, etc.

They previously have used the city of Effingham as an excuse for repeatedly saying a euphemism for an obscene adjective. Obviously it is hard to fill up four hours of air time every weekday morning. I laughed at their routine, but then had second thoughts. Humor is a matter of taste, but their taste is very questionable. Just because you can dance right on the edge of what is acceptable doesn’t mean that you should.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Crystal therapy for stage fright?

There is lots of curious advice in books and on the web on ways to treat stage fright. Some of it even involves the use of crystals or gemstones.

In his book, The Healing Crystal First Aid Manual, Michael Gienger says on page 195 that:

“Golden Topaz is the best crystal for last minute nerves such as stage fright or before an important interview, examination, etc. It helps one feel secure and self-confident, strengthens the ability to express oneself and helps facing up to public appearances in a relaxed way.

Hold a crystal (Chrysoberyl or Golden Topaz) or a raw or tumbled stone (Amber or Magnesite) in the hand for immediate effect; or wear as a bracelet, necklace or pendant for a longer period.

Alternatively, take gem essence (3-7 drops, 3 times daily), or gem water (100 to 200 ml taken in small sips during the course of the day).”

If this doesn’t work, then it must be your fault, because you just have not properly cleansed or recharged the crystals.

What is the difference between gem essences and gem waters? On page 25 Gienger says that:

“Gem water is made by placing crystals in water for a period of time ranging from a few hours to a number of days. Gem essences, on the other hand, are made by placing crystals in water or alcohol for a longer period, or by means of special procedures that differ from one producer to the other.”

How does crystal therapy work? On page 26 Gienger says that:

“The effects of the crystals described in this book are not chemical, but come about through a transmission of the crystal’s own internal “information”. Crystal healing is therefore an information-therapy, rather like homeopathy, Bach flower remedies, or aromatherapy. The outer, practical applications of the crystals and the consumption of gem water, gem essences or preparations that do not contain the actual substances, or only in extremely diluted form, are sufficient in themselves to obtain the necessary healing effects.”

Of course, just after the title page is a Publisher’s note (a very broad disclaimer) which says that:

“The information in this volume has been compiled according to the best of our knowledge and belief, and the healing properties of the crystals have been tested many times over. Bearing in mind that different people react in different ways, neither the publisher nor the author can give a guarantee for the effectiveness or safety of use in individual cases. In the case of serious health problems please consult your doctor or naturopath.”

If they don’t really believe it, then why should you or I?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Gallows humor and fear of public speaking on Scrubs

Dr. Elliot Reid, played by Sarah Chalke, looks horrified when she hears about Dr. Burke’s suicide because she suffers from low self-esteem. When she tried to raise her spirits by purchasing a new car, it just became a fricking disaster. Her biography on the web site for the show quotes J.D. as saying:

"Both Dr. Kelso and I had heard enough of Elliot's inspirational stories to know that they inevitably end with someone killing themselves."

The clip is from My Way Home, which is the 100th episode of Scrubs. It is noted for many references to the Wizard of Oz - in which Billie Burke played Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A flare for introducing speakers?

Sometimes you find typographical errors that are unintentionally hilarious. A spelling checker may not catch them all. In July, I mentioned finding pubic speaking in the title of a blog post. You also can become aroused if you listen to National Pubic Radio (NPR).

While preparing last week's post on Introducing a Speaker I found this gem on page 242 of Jeffrey P. Davidson’s book, The Complete Guide to Public Speaking:

“Start with the basic assumption that your introducer is not skilled in this area, ill at ease in making introductions, and prefers to do anything else. Then, if you encounter someone who has a flare for introducing speakers, you’re ahead of the game.”

If you encounter someone who has a flare for introducing speakers, you should proceed with extreme caution. When you shake hands, you might get badly burned! Of course, Mr. Davidson meant to say flair. The striking image is from Peacemaker.

We have added something the ancient Greeks did not mention about public speaking. Along with ethos, pathos, and logos we now have typos.