Wednesday, December 17, 2014

How many Americans are afraid of deep water or drowning?

Perhaps not as many as you might think. Recently I saw an article titled How to Overcome Fear of Water by Patty Chang Anker dated December 9th at Psychology Today. On December 4th she had posted it on her own blog.

Her second paragraph began:

“Look at these statistics:

Two-thirds of Americans are afraid of deep, open bodies of water and 46% are afraid of the deep-end of a pool. 37% of Americans are unable to swim, and almost 4000 people a year in the United States die of drowning.....”

One thing that stuck me was that she had not mentioned statistics about fear of drowning. Perhaps she missed that this October page 65 from the Chapman Survey on American Fears had reported results from having asked 1573 adults:

“How afraid are you of the following? Drowning, water.” 

Just 7.5% said they were Very Afraid, 11.8% said they were Afraid, 28.5% said they were Somewhat Afraid, and 49.0% said they were Not Afraid At All. (The remaining 3.3% Refused to answer). I blogged about that survey here. Fear of drowning ranked third or sixth.

Back in 2000 the Discovery Health Channel also did a survey of 1,000 people that included fear of drowning. I blogged about it in a 2009 post titled U.S. residents are slightly more afraid of public speaking than of hell or fire. Just 14% were afraid of drowning (17% of women and 11% of men). Fear of drowning ranked fourth or fifth.  

Where did the statistics Patty quoted about fear of water come from, and how do they compare with other results? Also, where does fear of water rank in comparison with other fears?

A 2012 post by Thomas Lachocki on the National Swimming Pool Foundation blog said:

“A study performed by Gallup (n=815) and presented at the 2008 World Aquatic Health™ Conference by Melon Dash indicates that 64% of Americans are afraid in deep, open water (lakes, rivers, ocean,…). Forty six percent are afraid in deep water in pools. Even 39% are afraid to put their heads under water.”

When I looked further, I found that Melon is the nickname of M. Ellen Dash of Miracle Swimming Institute (MSI), and reportedly that survey really is a decade older:

“To develop a better picture of how fear and anxiety factor into adults’ ability to learn to swim, in 1998 MSI commissioned a Gallup poll to survey nearly 1,000 American adults. The results support Dash’s theory that adults who can’t swim are blocked by emotions. Gallup found that 46 percent of American adults are afraid in deep water in pools, 64 percent are afraid in deep open water, and 39 percent are afraid to put their heads underwater.

‘Nobody has ever done a poll like that,” Dash says. “It’s the only statistics we have [of that kind].’ ”

Actually there are at least six other surveys including fear of water. I have linked to my posts about five of them in a July 30, 2012 blog post titled Is fear of public speaking the greatest fear in the entire galaxy? In the following discussion I will list them in chronological order, and also for perspective will include the most common fear and its percentage (and the ranking for fear of water).

The 1973 Bruskin survey with 2,543 people (popularized in the 1977 Book of Lists) found that deep water was feared by 21.5%, which was ranked 5th versus speaking before a group at 40.6%.

The Epidemiologic Catchment Area study done in the early 1980s looked at fear of water using a huge sample (n=14,263) and reported anxiety symptoms of 9.2% for non-severe and ranked 3rd (with Bugs, mice, snakes, bats most common at 16.3%. For severe anxiety, water was 3.3% and ranked 3rd. Combining severe and non-severe, water was feared by 12.5% and ranked 3rd vs bugs, mice, snakes, bats at 22.4%.    

The National Comorbidity Survey done in the early 1990s also looked at fear of water under specific fears using a another huge sample (n=8,098). Water was feared by 9.4%, which was ranked 9th versus public speaking at 30.2%.
The 1993 Bruskin-Goldring survey of 1,000 people found that deep water was feared by 33%, which was ranked 4th versus speaking before a group at 45%.
The 1996 Roper survey reported in American Demographics found that swimming in the ocean was feared by 39%, which was ranked by a tie for 6th versus public speaking at 56%.

In 2010 Dwyer and Davidson repeated the questions from the 1973 Bruskin survey using  a sample of 815 students at a midwestern university. They found that deep water was feared by 27.2%, which was ranked 7th versus speaking before a group at 61.7%. For women, deep water was feared by 34.8%, which was ranked 7th versus speaking before a group at 65.9%. For men, deep water was feared by 19.5%, which was ranked 7th versus speaking before a group at 57.2%.

These percentages are lower than those reported in the Gallup poll, and water never was the most common fear - it ranked 3rd to 9th.

In a 2011 blog post, I discussed What’s the difference between a fear and a phobia? For the previously discussed National Comorbidity Survey, both specific fears and phobias were tabulated. In a 2012 blog post about fear of flying I discussed how only 3.4% had a phobia of water (which ranked 6th), versus 9.4% who had fear. The most common specific fear was of animals at 22.2%, but only 5.7% had a phobia of them.

The National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions examined a huge sample of 43,093 people. Just 2.4% had a phobia of being in or on water, which ranked 5th relative to the 4.7% with a phobia of insects, snakes, birds, or other animals.

In that same blog post I also discussed how a survey of 7,076 Dutch people found that 7.1% had a fear of water and just 2.2% had a phobia. The most common fear (19.1%) was of heights, and water ranked 5th. Heights (4.9%) also was the most common phobia, and water tied for 7th.        

The image was cropped from a 1913 painting by Laurits Tuxen.

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