Saturday, February 1, 2014

Who found that 70% of the U. S. public (or perhaps university students) feared public speaking?

For years I’ve been hearing claims that somewhere around three-fourths of people fear public speaking. Some have said that statistic came from the U. S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), or even the World Health Organization (WHO).

In a blog post back in July 2012 I noted that the NIMH claim was bogus, but those sort of percentages had been reported decades ago by James C. McCroskey and his colleagues. McCroskey did a lot of research on communication apprehension (CA). He classified it to include both trait communication apprehension (TCA) and state communication apprehension (SCA). Back in 2009 McCroskey had a retrospective article in Human Communication magazine titled Communication Apprehension: What Have We Learned in the Last Four Decades, which you can download here. On page 164 he said that:

“It has been estimated that approximately 70 percent of the people in the U.S. report experiencing high CA when they have to give a public speech. This does not mean that 70 percent of the population are high TCA communication apprehensives. Rather it is estimated that only 15 - 20 percent of the people are high communication apprehensives. Thus, many people who are moderate or low in TCA may experience SCA when confronted by public speaking, but some may learn to control their SCA over time and/or with experience.”

Note that McCroskey doesn’t say that his approximate estimate of 70 percent came from a randomly selected survey sample of U.S. adults. Instead that 70 percent statistic came from his research with the Personal Report of Public Speaking Anxiety (PRPSA). The PRPSA was first described in 1970, and you can download it here. I blogged about it in December 2009. It is likely that many people who took the PRPSA were university students (perhaps sophomores) who were enrolled in public speaking classes. Some universities require such classes, so you might expect a random sample of students at those institutions. Others don’t, so you’d expect a biased sample of those interested in improving their skills (either because they started out especially bad or good).  

On page 4 of the 2nd edition of Deanna D. Sellnow’s book, Confident Public Speaking (2005) she said that:

“Surveys report that 70 to 75% of the adult population fears public speaking (McCroskey 1993; Richmond and McCroskey 1995).

There is a detailed discussion of it in her second reference, a book by Virginia P. Richmond and James C. McCroskey, Communication Apprehension, Avoidance, and Effectiveness (5th edition, 1998), which has a long discussion of Context-Based CA starting on page 44: 

“This type of CA relates to people who are fearful or anxious about communicating in one type of context, while having no fear or anxiety in other contexts. The most common form of this is the fear of public speaking or stage fright.

Context-based CA is viewed as ‘a relatively enduring, personality-type orientation toward communication in a given type of context’ (McCroskey, 1984, p. 16). This type of communication apprehension relates to generalized situations. Examples of such situations, besides public speaking, include going on job interviews, meeting new people, and the like. The Personal Report of Public Speaking Anxiety (PRPSA: McCroskey, 1970) will determine your fear about public speaking (see Appendix G). Your score on the PRPSA can range between 34 and 170.

For people with scores between 34 and 84 on the PRPSA, very few public speaking situations would produce anxiety. Scores between 85 and 92 indicate a moderately low level of anxiety about public speaking. While some public speaking situations would be likely to arouse anxiety in people with such scores, most situations would not be anxiety arousing. Scores between 93 and 110 indicate moderate anxiety in most public speaking situations, but the level of anxiety is not likely to be so severe that the individual won’t be able to cope with it and eventually become a successful speaker.

Scores that range between 111 and 119 suggest a moderately high level of anxiety about public speaking. People with such scores will tend to avoid public speaking because it usually arouses a fairly high level of anxiety. While some public speaking situations may not cause too much of a problem, most will be problematic. Scores between 120 and 170 indicate a very high level of anxiety about public speaking. People with scores in this range have very high anxiety in most, if not all, public speaking situations and are likely to go to considerable lengths to avoid them. It is unlikely that they can become successful public speakers, unless they overcome or significantly reduce their anxiety.
When we discussed oral communication apprehension and the PRCA-24, we noted that the ‘normal’ range of scores included only moderate levels of CA. The picture is quite different when we look at anxiety about public speaking. Of the several thousand college students who have completed the PRPSA, the following percentages have been found in the five categories: low anxiety, 5 percent; moderately low anxiety, 5 percent; moderate anxiety 20 percent; moderately high anxiety, 30 percent; and high anxiety, 40 percent. Thus the ‘normal’ range for public speaking is in the moderate to high categories, since that is where most people’s scores fall. What this suggests, then, is that it is ‘normal’ to experience a fairly high degree of anxiety about public speaking. Most people do. If you are highly anxious about public speaking, then you are ‘normal.’

Although there is no necessary relationship between trait communication apprehension level and level of communication apprehension concerning any particular generalized context, it is much more likely that a person who is high in traitlike communication apprehension will have high communication apprehension in more generalized contexts. The reverse is true for the person with low trait communication apprehension.

Of particular importance are the proportion of people who experience high communication apprehension in given situations. While only 20 percent of the population experiences high traitlike communication apprehension, estimates run as high as 80 percent of the population for generalized context communication apprehension - over 70 percent for the public speaking context alone. Thus, while such communication apprehension is very likely to make one uncomfortable and interfere with communication, it is very normal for a person to experience high communication apprehension (to be scared) in at least one situation.“

That discussion is very similar to the one presented in the 1985 first edition of that book, which lists the same scores and percentages. So, the data really is about three decades old. The bar chart shown above  (click on it for a larger version) summarizes the percentages of people who took the PRPSA and had those scores and five levels of anxiety. The 70 percent statistic results from adding the 30 percent with moderately high anxiety to the 40 percent with high anxiety. 

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