Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A frightening lack of clarity about what a survey measured

The October 2015 issue of Men’s Health magazine has a brief article by K. Aleisha Peters on page 37 that is titled Outsmart Every Demon. The text box at the upper left says:

“Want to freak out your friends this Halloween? Ask them if they ever think about going bankrupt. In a survey of Americans’ fears, researchers at Chapman University in California found that men are most apprehensive or worried about the things they can’t control - with going broke edging out an unexpected visit from the Reaper. Heights and animals also make the list, as do random evils such as terrorist attacks, says study author Christopher Bader, Ph.D. Use this page to gauge how your own fears compare to what’s haunting other men, Then find out what causes you to quake so you can overcome it.”

Most of the page consists of a graphic that lists fourteen fears arranged in an oval with each percentage shown at the center of a small donut chart (color coded red, green, or blue). A caption at the lower right says:

“Terror triggers, and the number of men they scare the hell out of.”

Going clockwise from the top those percentages and colors [in brackets] are:

79% Growing old [blue] (C)
79% Terrorist attack [red] (B)
60% Heights [green] (A)
88% Going broke [blue] (C)
83% Illness [blue] (C)
56% Animals [green] (A)
60% Public Speaking [green] (A)
68% Job loss [blue] (C)
13% Clowns [red] (A)
36% Flying [green] (A)
26% The Dark [green] (A)
16% Zombies [red] (A)
68% Death [blue] (C)
50% Mass shooting [red] (A)

There is a big problem with comparing these percentages. They are one possible set of answers to three different questions, (A), (B), and (C) which are:

(A)  How afraid are you of...? with answers of:
Very Afraid, Afraid, Somewhat Afraid, Not Afraid At All, and (Refused)

(B)  How worried are you about...? with answers of:
Very Worried, Worried, Somewhat Worried, Not at All Worried, and (Refused)

(C)  How often do you worry about...? with answers of:
Almost Always, Very Often, Not Very Often, Hardly Ever, and (Refused)

Note that the color blue is used just for Question (C), but both red and green are used for Question (A). That’s just silly. Red also is used once for Question (B).

It appears that the percentages shown are for men and are the sum of the first three answers. They don’t exactly match the sums in the bar chart for ‘Phobias’ (see above) that I showed in my October 29, 2014 blog post. (Click on it to see a larger, clearer view) But, those sums are far larger than what scares the hell out of men (just Very Afraid).

As is shown above in another bar chart, what’s being done with these different questions is like comparing apples, potatoes, and walnuts. You really can’t compare the percentage for public speaking with that for death. This Men's Health article is as silly as last year’s on the Top 10 things the average guy fears the most.

The image was derived from one at the Library of Congress.

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