Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why do people still refer to a 39 year old survey?

This month marks the 39th anniversary of a survey done by R. H. Bruskin Associates and published in July 1973 as a report titled What Are Americans Afraid Of? It should have come with a lurid cover, which I’ve imagined above.

Most people have never heard of that report. Instead they have seen some results from it quoted third hand as being from a brief article, The 14 Worst Human Fears, published in The Book of Lists, which was printed back in 1977. Public speaking was feared by the most people (41%) while death was seventh (19%).

Two decades later (in 1993) comedian Jerry Seinfeld produced his revised version that switched from more people fear to people fear more and instead claimed:

“According to most studies, people’s number-one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. ‘Death’ is number two! Now, this means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

The Seinfeld version is quoted by some coaches. Ed Sykes mentioned it in an article which just was reposted this month.

The successor to Bruskin Associates, Bruskin-Goldring, did another survey in 1993 that is quoted far less often. In his book Confessions of a Public Speaker Scott Berkun confused things further by referring to the 1973 survey as having come from the Bruskin/Goldkin agency. 

Some Toastmasters clubs still quote The Book of Lists on their web sites. Their foolishness can be traced to an undated press release from the headquarters of Toastmasters International titled Teaching people to talk turkey without turning chicken that can be found on a Baylor University web site. The Balcone, Peachtree and Speakeasy clubs and District 52 and District 53 are a few examples. The undated press release opened with:

“Most people would rather die than give a speech, according to a survey reported in The Book of Lists. Fear of public speaking outranked the fear of death by a two-to-one margin!”

That article from the 1977 Book of Lists doesn’t appear in their later books, including the 2005 version called The New Book of Lists, which can be searched in Google under Books. On her web site Jane Jacobs incorrectly referred to it being there.

In March 2001 there was an article about a Gallup poll that instead found that Snakes Top List of Americans’ Fears. On September 11th of that year the World Trade Center in New York was destroyed. It was built back in 1973. 

Statistically, a survey done in the U.S. in 1973 now is less than a half-truth. The median age of our population reported in the 2010 census was 37.2 years, so half of them weren’t even around back when Bruskin asked their questions.

Continuing to refer to something 39 years old sends out a clear message - that you’re too lazy to do serious research. Instead you uncritically repeat what you’ve heard others say. Is the rest of your message equally superficial?

My imagined lurid report cover was derived from a 1903 Puck magazine cover.

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