Thursday, May 17, 2012

More university students in the U.S. fear public speaking than fear death, but death is their top fear.

How could that be? Those results were the answers to two different survey questions. They were asked by Karen K. Dwyer and Marlina M. Davidson in research they reported in an article titled Is Public Speaking Really More Feared Than Death? that just appeared on pages 99 to 107 of the April-June 2012 issue of Communication Research Reports. You can read the abstract here and find the full text here.

Ms. Dwyer and Ms. Davidson did their survey in 2010. Participants were  815 students (416 women, 372 men, and 27 who didn’t report their gender) enrolled in a basic communications course at a large Midwestern university. Their online survey was an optional part of an oral communication assessment that was announced on the first day of class.

Their first survey item was:

“Everybody has fears about some things. Please check all the things on this short list that make you fearful or anxious.”

The list  had these fourteen items, which I’ve shown in alphabetical order:

Deep water
Driving riding in a car
Financial problems
Insects & Bugs
Speaking before a group

They are the same 14 items reported in the 1973 Bruskin survey cited in the 1977 Book of Lists. I really wish people would quit talking about that old survey, but this new one one gives them yet another reason to keep discussing it.

Their second item asked the students to rank their top three fears from the same list.

Their third item was the six questions about the public speaking context from the 24-item Personal Report of Communication Apprehension (PRCA).

Results from their first item are shown above in a bar chart (in purple). (Click on it to see a larger version). 61.7% of students feared speaking before a group, 52.1% feared financial problems, and 40.1% feared death. The survey participants chose a total of 2,978 fears, or an average of 3.65 per person. 

Note that in the 1973 Bruskin survey (gray) death came seventh at only 18.7%. The large differences between these surveys aren’t very surprising, since many of the students in the 2010 probably weren’t even born 37 years earlier. 

Another bar chart compares results for women (pink) and men (blue). Women reported higher percentages than men for all 14 fears.

A third bar chart shows results from the second item about top fears. Death was the most commonly reported top fear, followed by speaking before a group, financial problems, heights, and loneliness.When you ask a different question, you get a different answer.

A fourth bar chart compares top fears by women and men. A larger percent of women than men reported speaking in public as their top fear. Also, women ranked loneliness higher than heights. Men ranked speaking before a group first, followed by death, financial problems, heights, and loneliness.

Dwyer and Davison spoke with Bruce Barr (who had worked for Bruskin) about the 1973 survey. Mr. Barr reported that for that survey the telephone representatives read from a list of 14 fears and asked if that item was a fear. Mr. Barr also said that Bruskin had no end client who had requested the survey. Apparently it just was an sample done for marketing purposes to show their capabilities.

More recently Michael Hinton blogged about the Bruskin 1973 survey. He said that it actually had been done for the Travel Research Association. Presumably it was released to the public after they found that fear of flying ranked only 8th (slightly behind death) and driving/riding in a car ranked 11th. 

Curiously Dwyer and Davidson didn’t mention the survey done two decades later in 1993 by the successor firm called Bruskin-Goldring.

Also, they didn’t mention the survey of 813 college students reported in 2010 by Seim and Spates. (Perhaps the article came out just after they did their search of the literature). In that 2010 survey spiders was ranked highest, followed by public speaking, snakes, heights, rats, tight enclosed spaces, receiving injections, insects, intrusive memories, seeing blood, meeting new people, and walking through crowds. 

Dwyer and Davidson give us a different perspective on the 1973 Bruskin one, so I’m glad to add it to my collection of surveys.

July 17, 2012 update: Today the University of Nebraska - Omaha finally put out a press release about this magazine article.

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