Monday, October 27, 2014

What do the most Americans fear? The Chapman Survey on American Fears and the press release copying reflex

On October 20th Chapman University issued a press release titled What Americans Fear Most - New Poll from Chapman University. It described results from their very interesting Chapman Survey on American Fears, and linked to another web page with a more detailed discussion and a link to the Complete Survey Results.

The survey covers fears, worries, and concerns. It is much broader than than typical surveys of 10 to 15 fears (covering topics such as blood, clowns, darkness, heights, flying, and public speaking) like the YouGov survey reported in March. The web survey was done between April 15th and 28th by GfK Group, and questioned a random sample of 1573 U. S. adults.
That press release says:

“The survey shows that the top five things Americans fear the most are:

Walking alone at night
Becoming the victim of identity theft
Safety on the internet
Being the victim of a mass/random shooting
Public speaking”

I downloaded and reviewed the complete survey results, and realized the press release was completely wrong about what the survey had measured. Really it was what the most Americans fear, since the results are reported as percentages. Measuring what Americans fear most would instead have required asking them to rank each fear on a scale (say from zero to five), which is something psychologists have been doing for decades with what are called Fear Survey Schedules.          

It gets worse though. That top five list combines results for the top category from questions that were  asked two different ways. One was:

“How safe do you feel [walking alone at night?] or [On the Internet]

with answers of:

Not At All Safe (reported as 20.3% for walking alone, and 11.3% for on the internet)
Somewhat Safe
Very Safe
Refused (don’t know)

The other general question was:

“How afraid are you of the following?”

with answers of:

Very Afraid
Somewhat Afraid
Not Afraid At All
Refused (don’t know)

for the following specifics (and an answer of Very Afraid):

Identity theft/credit card fraud (19.6%)
Being the victim of a mass/random shooting (8.9%)
Public speaking (8.8%)

That's like comparing bananas with blueberries. 

How about the margin of error for a survey with a sample of 1573 people? It is about 2.5%, so 20.3% and 19.6%, or 8.9% and 8.8% aren’t really different at all.

It’s comical how many journalists didn’t think critically, and borrowed the title of the press release for their reporting about this survey. Perhaps that’s just a reflex, like when the doctor hits your knee with his little hammer.

On October 22nd, at the Huffington Post, Carolyn Gregoire used the title What americans fear most. At the Dallas Morning News Shannon Grigsby used New list of what Americans fear most doesn’t strike terror in my heart. CBS News used Fear factor: New study reveals what scares Americans most. At Yahoo Health Ryan Wallace went with The One Thing Americans Fear The Most, and then got fanciful about how that question was asked.

What has me excited is that in the Phobias section of the Chapman survey they not only included the usual fear of clowns, but also asked about both ghosts and zombies.  Watch this blog for more.

The Cry and Reflex images both were derived from those at Openclipart

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