Monday, June 20, 2011

Public speaking fears in Winnipeg

Back in 1993 three researchers (Murray F. Stein, John R. Walker, and David R. Forde) at the University of Manitoba did a telephone poll about fear of public speaking. It was done as part of an annual community survey using a sample of about 500 people in Winnipeg. Results were reported in a 1996  article, “Public Speaking Fears in a Community Sample - Prevalence, Impact on Functioning, and Diagnostic Classification” published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. You can read the abstract here.

167 of the 499 people said they were much more nervous (or uncomfortable) than other people about speaking to a large audience. These 34% were considered to have a substantial fear of public speaking.  Another 24% of the 499 said they were somewhat more nervous than other people. (Only 59 of the 167, or 12% of the overall sample, rated themselves as that nervous when instead speaking to a small group of familiar people).

Those with a substantial fear of public speaking reported having the percentages of five anxious thoughts (cognitions) shown above.

People with a substantial fear of public speaking also reported it having the serious impacts shown above.

They also tried to describe when the fear of speaking started, and found that 50% had it by age 13, 75% by age 17, and 90% by age 20. I’d previously mentioned those results agree with more recent ones using a larger sample.  

In 2003 a press release and a report from Emory University (in Atlanta) about using virtual reality therapy for fear of public speaking mentioned data from that survey as background information:

“The fear of public speaking is common in up to 88 percent of individuals with social phobia, and 34 percent of people in the general population.”

More recently on eHow that result was restated as:

“In 2003, Emory University reported that 34 percent of people panic at the thought of speaking in public...”

Finally, on May 31st at Woman’sDay that result was described as:

“According to research from Emory University, the fear of public speaking is prevalent in up to 34 percent of the general population.”

That’s not just a horse of a different color - it’s completely mythical. By now it’s lost when, where, and who was responsible for the survey. (I emailed Professor Rothbaum at Emory to check if they had done a survey there, and they hadn’t). The Woman’sDay quote already was repeated on June 14th by Bill Burniece. The moral is to check the source before spreading a fictitious statistic.

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