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What do Americans fear most?

From environmental disasters to paranormal activity, Chapman University survey reveals the top American fears
What do Americans fear most?

Chapman University recently completed its fourth annual Chapman University Survey of American Fears (2017), which asked respondents about 80 different fears across a broad range of categories.

These include fears about the government, the environment, terrorism, health, natural disasters and finances, as well as fears of public speaking, spiders, heights, ghosts and many other personal anxieties.

In addition to the set of fears examined in previous waves, the survey team took a closer look at one particular fear-related phenomena: fear of extremism.

In its fourth year, the annual Chapman University Survey of American Fears included more than 1,207 adult participants from across the nation and all walks of life. The sample used was ‘a direct slice of the American population according to census data’.

The 2017 survey data is organised into four basic categories: personal fears, natural disasters, paranormal fears and fear of extremism.

Top 10 American fears

The 2017 survey shows that the top 10 things Americans fear the most are:

  1. Corruption of government officials (same top fear as 2015 and 2016)
  2. American Healthcare Act/Trumpcare (new fear)
  3. Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes (new in top 10)
  4. Pollution of drinking water (new in top 10)
  5. Not having enough money in the future
  6. High medical bills
  7. The US will be involved in another world war (new fear)
  8. Global warming and climate change
  9. North Korea using weapons (new fear)
  10. Air pollution

Environmental fears

Environmental fears – which never cracked the top 10 American fears in previous surveys – figure more prominently than ever before. Water pollution ranks third overall, followed closely by drinking water quality.

‘The 2017 survey data shows us that while some of the top fears have remained, there has also been a pronounced shift to environmental fears. We are beginning to see trends that people tend to fear what they are exposed to in the media. Many of the top 10 fears this year can be directly correlated to the top media stories of the past year.’

CHRISTOPHER BADER, PhD
Professor of sociology at Chapman University

A majority of Americans (53.1%) fear pollution of ‘oceans, rivers and streams.’ The fact that water pollution has become such a prominent fear in 2017 may be traced to the reversal of environmental policies of the Obama Administration.

50.4% fear for the quality of their drinking water. This could be linked to the prominent news coverage of lead poisoning in the drinking water of Flint, Michigan, during the past year.

Americans also fear climate change (48%) and air pollution (44.9%). These are the eighth and tenth greatest fears, respectively.

The sharp rise in the number of Americans who now say they fear climate change (and air pollution, which contributes to climate change) may be linked to President Trump’s controversial decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Fears of man-made disasters

The survey asked Americans about fears of man-made disasters, such as a nuclear melt-down and nuclear and terror attacks, as well as natural disasters.

Nearly half of all Americans (48%) fear North Korea using nuclear weapons and 41% fear a nuclear attack generally. The prospect of a nuclear meltdown has made 31% afraid or very afraid. 48% fear being the victim of terrorism and 44% fear a terror attack in general.

Natural disasters

Americans fear many natural disasters and 68% believe natural disasters are capable of harming them or their property.

Less than half (41% – up from 32% in 2016), actually have an emergency plan in place for their households and 26% have such a plan for their pets.

‘Whether they’re afraid of an attack by North Korea, a pandemic (which 36% of Americans fear) or a natural disaster, Americans just aren’t prepared. Sheltering in place requires some preparation, such as food water, and medicine. Only 34% of Americans have such preparations, although 45% say they are familiar with the advice to ‘Prepare. Plan. Stay informed’. And in any disaster a battery powered radio is essential to staying informed. This would be a great step towards preparedness for American households.’

ANN GORDON, PhD
Director of Chapman University’s Henley Lab

Paranormal America 2017

The 2017 Chapman University Survey of American Fears includes a battery of items on paranormal beliefs. Currently the most common paranormal belief in the United States is that ancient, advanced civilisations, such as Atlantis, once existed – more than half of respondents (55%) agree or strongly agree with this statement.

Slightly more than half (52%) believe that places can be haunted by spirits. More than a third (35%) believe that that aliens visited Earth in our ancient past and more than a quarter believe aliens have come to Earth in modern times (26%).

Americans are the most sceptical about Bigfoot, with only 16% expressing belief in its existence.

‘The survey shows that paranormal beliefs are quite common in the United States by examining how many such beliefs a person holds. Using the seven paranormal items included on the survey, we find that only a fourth of Americans (25.3%) do not hold any of these seven beliefs. However, this means that nearly three-fourths of Americans do believe in something paranormal.’

CHRISTOPHER BADER, PhD
Professor of sociology at Chapman University

The survey also looked at the personal characteristics that are significantly associated with higher levels of paranormal belief. Simply put, the person with the highest number of paranormal beliefs in the United States as of 2017 will tend to be a lower income female living in a rural area in the Western states. She tends to be politically conservative and claims to be highly religious, although she actually attends religious services infrequently. She is either currently single or cohabiting with someone and reports her race as ‘other’.

Click here for a full list of the all the fears from The Chapman Survey on American Fears 2017.

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