Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The 14 Worst Human Fears in the 1977 Book of Lists: where did this data really come from?

Probably the most commonly cited survey about fears and public speaking was reported in the 1977 edition of The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace. An article on pages 469 and 470 was titled “The 14 Worst Human Fears.” Their secondary source was the London Sunday Times.

41% feared speaking before a group, while only 19% feared death. Comparison of just those two percentages led to the common statement that more people fear public speaking than fear death. By the application of comic logic, Jerry Seinfeld (and others) transformed this into a completely different claim: that people fear public speaking more than they fear death.

There has been confusion expressed in articles posted on the Web by Bill Cashell and Melissa Lewis regarding where the data actually came from. In a blog post on April 17, 2008 Pete Miller even said: “The source of this list, no one knows.”

A few days later, on April 21, 2008 Lisa Braithwaite quoted Melissa Lewis as stating that:
“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!”

On my bookshelf I have a copy of the 2004 eighth edition of a popular textbook, The Art of Public Speaking, by Stephen E. Lucas. Page 21 says that:
“A survey conducted in 1973 asked more that 2,500 Americans to list their greatest fears. To the surprise of the researchers, the largest number of people – 41 percent – listed speaking before a group among their greatest fears. (Ref. 8)”
Lucas referred to “What Are Americans Afraid Of”, The Bruskin Report, 53 (July 1973). Since the 41% matched the Book of Lists, I suspected that this reference really was the primary source.

That Bruskin Report does not appear in Worldcat, the “planetary library catalog”. When I asked the Boise Public Library to find it for me they could not. (Materials that do not come from book or magazine publishers are called “gray literature” and might not be cataloged by a library anywhere unless they had very special interest in a particular topic.) However, the Boise Public Library was able to obtain the secondary source, the London Sunday Times article. That brief newspaper article by Peter Watson is titled “What people usually fear,” and it appeared on the bottom of page 9 of the October 7, 1973 issue.

Over at Boise State University, in a database, I found an article on page 4 of the December 1973 issue of Spectra (Volume 9, number 6) which also contained the list of 14 fears from the Bruskin report. The brief article on Fear said that:
“R. H. Bruskin Associates carried out a survey in April of 1973 involving 2,543 male and female adults. Respondents were asked to pick items from a list representing situations in which they had some degree of fear. The rank order of fears reported is as follows:”

That list of fears had results shown to tenths of a percent. All 14 entries round to what is shown in both the Sunday Times and Book of Lists, so the Bruskin Report clearly is the primary source for the data. At the end of the article it listed the street address of the firm as R. H. Bruskin Associates, 303 George Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08903. The list is shown above in a bar chart (click it to enlarge). So, a survey done by a firm in New Jersey had to be cited by a London newspaper before it found its way into an American book!

Which other fears were missing from that April 1973 survey? First, consider some everyday fears recited by politicians, like unemployment, homelessness, drugs, crime, racism, terrorists, communists, and socialists. Second, think of some Halloween subjects from horror movies like zombies, vampires, werewolves, demons, great white sharks, snakes, crocodiles, rats, giant squids, and aliens.

The movie Jaws came out in 1975, so by next year I suspect that sharks were “top of mind” and would have made any list of top ten fears. By the time the 1977 Book of Lists appeared the 1973 Bruskin survey actually was out of date.

Also, what about horror movies with combinations of fears, like Snakes on a Plane. Why hasn’t there been a trifecta sequel about Public Speaking to Snakes on a Plane? However, there is a Pickles cartoon about public speaking on a plane over deep water.

Why is this ancient survey result still being referenced? It got into public speaking textbooks long ago as an attention grabber, and then just stayed there. There was an article by Mary Hinchcliff Pelias in the January 1989 issue of Communication Education titled Communication Apprehension in Basic Public Speaking Texts: An Examination of Contemporary Textbooks. She looked at 25 texts, and found that 13 of them cited either the Book of Lists or the Bruskin Report. Pelias cited the second edition (1986) of Lucas. As I mentioned previously, the Bruskin report reference was still in the eighth (2004) edition.

The much more recent 2001 Gallup Poll data long ago should have replaced the Book of Lists, yet the old survey stumbles on like a mumbling zombie. Happy Halloween! 

Update   March 24, 2011

I found the same list of percentages shown in the bar chart also are listed on page 238 of Raymond Ross’s Speech Communication textbook (5th edition,Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980).

Dr. Ross also quotes the following paragraph from the Bruskin Report:

“About 46% of women have this fear, while 36% of men indicate some concern. There is little difference by age, but people in the $15,000 plus income group seem somewhat less concerned about public speaking. The more education a person has, the less likely he is to fear addressing a group. People living in the southern part of the United States seem to have the greatest fear while those in the northeast seem less concerned.”

Update    August 28, 2011

On August 14th I posted about another list of 20 Fears for a New Millennium, taken from data in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, that can be used to replace the one in the 1977 Book of Lists.


Update    March 7, 2012

Curiously, another possible statement from the Bruskin survey or Book of Lists - that almost as many people fear flying as fear death is not common at all. 

On March 3, 2012 I blogged about How many folks in the U.S. are freaked out about flying? In that post I discussed some recent surveys on the fear and phobia of flying - and other specific fears, like heights, and close spaces. (Bruskin didn’t mention close spaces, or claustrophobia).

A simplistic “Fear Combo Plate” approach doesn’t work there. You might expect that to get the percent of people who fear flying you could add the percent who fear heights to the percent who fear enclosed spaces, but instead more people fear heights than fear flying. Life is full of surprises!


Update   April 2, 2014

If you’d prefer some data from 2014 (that are 41 years newer), please look at my post titled YouGov survey of U.S. adults found they most commonly were very afraid of snakes, heights, public speaking, spiders, and being closed in a small space



Francis Gumm said...

Even though the study done by Bruskin in 1973 may be more than 30 years old, it doesn't negate the fact that public speaking was a fear that most people have. I don't think the comparison that people fear of public speaking is greater than fear of height is a valid one but the fact is, there are more people have this fear of public speaking than any other fear.

There are many study/survey done in recent year that can confirm the public speaking is the a fear in most of those surveyed. i.e. aA study in Australia in 2008: http://www.drpr.com.au/media_releases/22-10-08.html

For those have no fear of public speaking, it may be difficult to comprehend how the fear of public speaking can be fear #1 but many of the "normal" people have to struggle with it everyday.

Richard I. Garber said...


If you click on the survey label at the end of my post you will find links to my many other posts.

There are surveys of the general public in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Iceland, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and Hong Kong. Fear of public speaking is up near the top of the lists.

There also are surveys of college students in the United States, Sweden, and India.

James McCroskey told a story about how some college students really do fear public speaking more than death.

I am aware of that Australian survey and blogged about it back on November 1, 2008. It is one of the silliest ones around because both the newspaper article and press release only refer to public speaking and death.

Maggie Knapp said...

Terrific analysis and citations, in cogent and readable (and fun!) blog posts. I work in an independent school library, and am always looking for on line examples of how facts can get muddied (if not outrightly mis-stated). Your blog posts and analysis of the many surveys on 'fear of public speaking' are great. And more kudos to you for the properly used and cited images that appear between many of your posts. Thanks for being a great example of well documented and analyzed research. Maggie Knapp, MS/US Library, Trinity Valley School.