Is public speaking the #1 social fear? A couple of professionals involved with public speaking don’t think so, but I respectfully disagree with them. In a blog post dated April 21, 2008 Lisa Braithwaite quoted from an earlier article by Melissa Lewis titled “Five tired, worn out public speaking clichés, and why it’s time to throw them out” that began with:
“ 1. ‘Public speaking is the #1 fear’
You can count on hearing this one any time you take a presentation skills class. The problem is, there’s nothing to substantiate it. The quoted source for this "fact" is The Book of Lists, which, even in current editions, shows a tiny blurb in the Sunday Times of London from October 7, 1973, as its source. In this article, no mention is made of who did this research, how it was conducted, who the subjects were, whether the subjects were a representative sample of the U.S. population—nothing! Not to mention the fact that this "research" is 30 years old. Haven’t people changed in 30 years? And don’t we face new fears that weren’t even in our consciousness in 1973? Of course. If this research were to be conducted with rigor today, we would likely have a different outcome. This tidy, shocking factoid is easily trotted out when we want to make a point, but it’s just not valid. Time to let it go”.
Melissa further said in an e-mail quoted by Lisa that “I have a standing offer to all my participants: Bring me a current, scientifically credible study showing that public speaking is the #1 fear and I'll give you $100. It's been 20 years and I'm still waiting!"
Well, Melissa if I was taking your course then I would ask you to open up your purse, get out your $100 bill and hand it over! (In fact, I could have had your $100 ten years ago.)
Earlier this year the results of from a large survey of the general population were published which state that public speaking is still the #1 specific social fear. That survey is the NCS-R, which is an abbreviation for the National Comorbidity Study – Replication. The paper with the results is “Social Fears and Social Phobia in the United States: Results from the National Comorbidity Study Replication” by A. M. Ruscio et al. You can find the abstract at Pubmed, as well as the full manuscript. The relevant results are the first column in Table 1.
If you list the prevalence of each specific fear in the total sample (9282 people) in decreasing order the fears are: Public speaking/performance 21.2%, Speaking up in meeting/class 19.5%, Meeting new people 16.8%, Talking to people in authority 14.7%, Important exam/interview 14.0%, Going to parties 13.4%, Talking with strangers 13.1%, Expressing disagreement 12.4%, Entering an occupied room 11.9%, Working while being watched 11.8%, Dating situation 11.5%, Writing/eating/drinking while being watched 8.1%, Using public bathroom 5.7%. There also were two more categories: Other performance or interaction fear 15.7%, and Any of the above fears 24.1%.
Just what is the National Comorbidity Survey? It’s a big, important American health survey program going back to the early 1990s, with its own web site. If you count the scientific papers produced from it you will find about 220!
Back in 1998 another paper by R. C. Kessler et al,“Social Phobia Subtypes in the National Comorbidity Survey” was published using the original survey data from 1990-1992. If you list the prevalence of each specific fear in the total sample (8098 people) in decreasing order the fears are: Public speaking 30.2%, Talking in front of a small group 15.2%, Talking with others 13.7%, Using a toilet away from home 6.6%, Writing while someone watches 6.4%, and Eating or drinking in public 2.7%. There also was a category of Any social fear 38.6%.
I am pretty good at finding information on the web and in libraries. However, it still took me about a half day of online search to dredge up these two articles. The moral, if any, is not to trust the “experts” on a topic. If you want to find out the truth you will have to dig it up on your own.