Saturday, October 10, 2015

A study of American childhood fears, from way back in 1897

Halloween is coming up, so once again it is time to discuss what scares children (and adults). Back in January of 1897 professor Granville Stanley Hall published a 103 page magazine article in Volume 8, Number 2, pages 147 to 249 of The American Journal of Psychology simply titled A Study of Fears. You can read the full text at JSTOR.

This was not a modern survey done on a random sample. Instead Professor Hall repeatedly sent out a detailed syllabus to 748 people describing in detail what he was looking for regarding fears. It also was reprinted in some educational journals and by teachers. With the last two paragraphs moved to the top it went:

“This syllabus is drawn up by the undersigned, and is sent to you with the request that you will read it carefully item by item, and (1) jot down at once in the easiest form of notes whatever each paragraph or phrase recalls of your own childish fears; (2) that if you are a parent you will add to this any observations this paper may suggest or recall on your own children (it may aid you if you keep a ‘life book’ or memoranda in any form about them); (3) that if you are a teacher, you will reads this paper to your class, write it on the board, or give it to individual pupils (of upper grammar or high school grades) and ask them to write as an exercise in composition (setting apart an hour, or asking for out of school work) an account of their own early or present fears; (4) if you are a normal school principal or teacher of psychology, you may connect it with class work in the study of feelings or emotions; (5) if you are a principal or superintendent, you can assign the work to some teacher or pupil to collect the data. All returns may be anonymous if preferred, but age, sex and nationality must be stated in every case.

Returns may be sent direct to the undersigned or, if preferred, may be studied by you, and will make the best of material for a lesson in psychology, for a discussion in a meeting of teachers or mothers, or an address, or an article for the press. When you are  entirely done with the material thus gathered and used, send it to the undersigned.  

“ONE Fears of celestial phenomena, as e.g., of winds, storms, thunder and lightning, heavenly bodies, meteors, sky falling, cloud, mist, fog and cloud forms; end of the world and attendant phenomena; night and darkness, eclipse; moon breaking, that the sun may not rise; peculiar sky colors, northern lights, excessive heat and cold, loss of orientation, and points of compass.

TWO Special inanimate objects such as fire and conflagration; water, drowning and washing or being washed; punishment and its instruments, and things and places associated with it; falling and of high places; uncanny places such as caves, ravines, gorges, forest gloom, high hills and solitude generally, and getting lost or shut up; guns and weapons; points, sharp edges, very narrow or wide open spaces; dirt on garments or skin, and contact generally; vehicles and riding.

THREE Living things, self-moving things generally; big eyes, mouth, teeth; dog, cat, snakes, pigs, rats and mice, spiders, bugs, and beetles, toads, etc.; sight of blood, robbers and burglars, strangers, society and bashfulness; fear of being laughed at, talked of or being ridiculous; shyness of opposite sex; fear of fighting; cowardice, poltroonery, suspiciousness.

FOUR Disease, dying, death, loss of friends, position, fortune, beauty, or of health generally; heart disease, cancers, fits, consumption, starvation, fear of prevalent diseases, or those read of.

FIVE Fears of the supernatural, e. g., ghosts, spirits, witches, fairies, dragons or mythological monsters; dream fears, conscience fears, as of having committed unpardonable sins; punishments specially incurred or sent from heaven, loss of soul and next world fears generally, fears of sin or impurity.

SIX Describe any sudden experience you have felt or observed, and whether involving only distinct surprise or being intense enough to cause real shock, start, or astonishment, with details of cause, effects and their permanence; terrors, without danger or cause other than a hereditary or a traumatic disposition to timidity.   

SEVEN In each case state order and age of fears, how long they lasted, how intense they were, what acts they prompted, and educational good or bad effects; was sleep affected? State specific symptoms, starting, paleness or sweat, urinations, rigidity, cramps, horripilations and ‘creepy crawling’ feelings, nausea, weakness, fainting, flight, causes, treatments, and cures.”

1,701 persons responded, and they described a total of 6,456 chief fears. He roughly grouped 5,037 of them into 29 categories. Table 1 on page 152 listed the number of persons with each fear. He didn’t mention the gender distribution for those 1,701 persons. (In Table 2 he compared 500 boys and 500 girls, so there might have been up to 1201 boys). 

A bar chart shows the overall results from Table I converted to percentages. (Click on it to see a larger, clearer view). The ten most common fears were: thunder and lightning (35.4%), reptiles (28.4%), strange persons (25.6%), darkness (25.4%), fire (21.5%), death (17.6%), domestic animals (15.8%), disease (14.2%), wild animals (12.1%), and water (12.1%). Note that public speaking or any related term like elocution, oration, or oratory, doesn’t appear.

A second bar chart shows the results from Table II on page 153 for 28 well-described fears of 500 girls and 500 boys. They were converted to percentages for comparison with those from Table I.

For girls the ten most common fears were: thunder and lightning (46%), persons (38%),
reptiles (36%), darkness (34.2%), death (20.4%), domestic animals (19.2%), rats and mice (15%), insects (14.8%), ghosts (14.4%), and wind (12.2%). End of the world was 11th (10.6%).

For boys the ten most common fears were: thunder and lightning (31%), darkness (26%), persons (25.8%), reptiles (24.6%), death (14.8%), water (12.4%), domestic animals (11.4%), insects (10.4%), ghosts (8.8%), and heights (8.6%).

For just the three fears of Water (10.6% girls, 12.4% boys), Heights (8.0% girls, 8.6% boys), and Shyness (1.6% girls, 1.8% boys) a higher percentage of boys were afraid than girls. In the other 25 cases a higher percentage of girls than boys were afraid, including all of their top ten.

Again, note that public speaking or any related term like elocution, oration, or oratory, doesn’t appear - and both shyness and ridicule have low percentages.

The classifications used in Table I and Table II are not completely consistent, as shown above.  

Then Professor Hall’s article continues with 25 sections on the fears of:

1]   High Places and Falling: Gravity Fears
2]   Losing Orientation
3]   Closeness
4]   Water
5]   Wind
6]   Celestial Objects
7]   Fire: Pyrophobia
8]   Darkness
9]   Dream Fears 

10] Shock
11] Thunder
12] Animals
13] Eyes
14] Teeth: Odontophobia
15] Fur: Doraphobia
16] Feathers
17] Special Fears of Persons
18] Solitude
19] Death
20] Diseases
21] Moral and Religious Fears
22] End of the World
23] Ghosts
24] Morbid
25] School Fears

It concludes with a 26th section on Repressions of Fears.

In 2006 Joanna Bourke published her book Fear a cultural history (Shoemaker Hoard). On page 34 she referred to Hall’s article but claimed:

“In the 1890s an influential sociologist was surprised to find that the dread of being buried alive was spontaneously mentioned by people when they were asked to describe their major fears.”

My bar chart of Table II shows that being buried alive was the 19th most common fear for girls and the 24th for boys. Also, Professor Hall likely was turning over in his grave at being called a sociologist!

An image of high school students in 1899 came from the Library of Congress.

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