Lorraine Boissoneault in Smithsonian:
What keeps Americans up at night? For three Chapman University sociologists, the answer turned out to be far more surprising than they’d expected. Christopher Bader, Edward Day and Ann Gordon started the American Fear Survey in 2014 as a way of finding out whether Americans really understood the state of crime in the United States. Bader and Day specialized in criminology, and knew crime rates had fallen precipitously over the past 20 years—but suspected the average American was far less informed. So they engineered a public opinion survey asking respondents to rate on a four-point scale how fearful they were of a variety of subjects. These included some of the obvious phobias, like snakes or clowns, but also more serious topics—things like crime, natural disasters, and political and economic issues. They also asked broader questions about the participants’ news habits and knowledge of basic science. The researchers’ goal was to get a sense of where crime ranked in the vast landscape of fears, higher or lower than spiders or loved ones dying. In the survey’s first year, which polled 1,500 respondents, results indicated the highest percentage of respondents, at 56 percent, were afraid of walking alone at night. They also found that more than 50 percent of people felt unsafe asking for help from a stranger if they ran out of gas on the side of a road.
The results were almost exactly what the researchers anticipated. Crime was perceived as a pervasive problem. “When people become too afraid, they tend to isolate themselves, which has negative personal consequences” and also ripples out into the community, Bader says. If the group could combat the scourge of fear, it might bring positive impacts that stretched far beyond the individual. Bader, Day and Gordon began thinking up strategies for disabusing the American public of their unsubstantiated beliefs on crime and safety, from publishing information on the lower crime rates to working with government agencies on how to inform the public about disaster preparedness. But one year of data did not a trend make. To really tackle the underlying fears of American society, the survey would need some longevity. Which brings us to 2017, the survey’s fourth year and its most surprising results yet. “This year we saw some big changes. Fear has really gone up,” Day says. “Prior to this year, there was only one item where the majority of Americans said they were afraid or very afraid, and this year there were five.”