American Horror Story: What Do Americans Fear the Most?

Corrupt government officials, not zombies, took first place for fears in a national survey of 1,541 U.S. adults. NBCNewsWire/NBC/NBCUPhotoBankviaGettyImages
Corrupt government officials, not zombies, took first place for fears in a national survey of 1,541 U.S. adults. NBCNewsWire/NBC/NBCUPhotoBankviaGettyImages

What scares Americans the most, more than ghosts, public speaking and murder? More than global warming? More than clowns?

Corrupt government officials.



A national survey asked Americans to rate their fear of 88 potentially scary things, including tornadoes, hurricanes, drunken drivers, needles, ghosts and dying alone. Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents said they were either "afraid" or "very afraid" of corruption. 

The survey also found that four of Americans' top 10 fears are technology-heavy:

  • 44.8 percent said they were "afraid" or "very afraid" of cyberterrorism (No. 2)
  • 44.6 percent were "afraid" or "very afraid" of corporate tracking of personal information (No. 3)
  • 41.4 percent were "afraid" or "very afraid" of government tracking of personal information (No. 4)
  • 39.6 percent were "afraid" or "very afraid" of identity theft (No. 7)
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Top 10 Fears of 2015
Chapman University

"People tend to fear things (they) know they are dependent on and yet they can't control," says Christopher Bader, the survey's lead researcher. "... That's practically the definition of technology."

The Chapman University Survey on American Fears asked a random sample of 1,541 adults from across the U.S. about their levels of fear related to various forms of crime, environmental problems, personal anxieties and other potentially horrifying topics. Each question asked the respondent to rate their fear, ranging from not afraid to very afraid.

The annual survey, in its second year, suggests Americans' fears have shifted since 2014, when walking alone at night topped the list.

But Bader, a sociology professor at Chapman, warns against reading too much into changes from one year to the next. One reason corrupt officials may seem especially terrifying now: It's been a particularly political year in America, as presidential contenders begin to face off.

"What's happening right now is just we have a whole set of politicians talking about how awful and corrupt the other one is, the guy standing next to him on the stage," Bader says.

Bader and his colleagues are more interested in long-term data. That's why they plan to conduct the survey every year for up to 20 years.

But even more than ranking Americans' fears, the researchers want to learn what drives fears, what their effects are — particularly on communities — and, ultimately, what can be done about them.

That's why, along with questions about specific fears, the researchers asked respondents about factors that might predict a person's fearfulness: How do they get their news? How many friends do they have? And it's why they also asked about potential outcomes of fears: Would they feel safe out at night in their neighborhood? (Nope, said about 16 percent.) How comfortable would they feel trusting a stranger? (Not comfortable, said more than half.)

Many people said they acted specifically because of their fears. Nearly a fourth — 22.6 percent — voted for a particular candidate based on fears, while 16.7 percent bought a home alarm and 10.5 percent purchased a gun because of fears. Fears even compelled 5.4 percent to send a child to a private school.

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Acting Out of Fear
Chapman University

Some findings echo results from 2014, notes Bader, who's also a criminologist. People remain scared of crime, even though crime rates continue to fall, according to FBI statistics. And people who consume more true-crime and talk TV tend to be more scared of crime, as well as of government and technology.

It's up to viewers to recognize those forms of media for what they offer, he says: a chance to see controversy in action and, in the case of a show about serial killers, for example, a chance to learn about something interesting but highly uncommon. While a significant number of homicides remain unsolved, most killers who get caught knew their victim. Yet the survey found more people feared murder by a stranger than by someone they know (16 percent, compared with 10.9 percent).

"Watch serial killers all day, I don't care," Bader says. "Just remember that if you watch 10 hours of crime TV and saw 10 serial killers, that's probably all 10. Go talk to your neighbors. Help a stranger on the street if they need help. That person is not a serial killer."

Bader says the survey also found a tipping point for fears that could affect communities. A little fear of crime can motivate people to help improve their neighborhoods. A little fear of natural disaster spurs them to stock up on water and beans and make a survival plan.

 But too much fear of crime? Then people tend to withdraw, Bader says. They stop talking to neighbors, or they even move out. As police and criminologists have long known, when the good people move out, bad people move in. And when people are too afraid of natural disasters? People get paralyzed, Bader says. With no beans and no plan, they're much worse off after a hurricane does hit.

All this talk about fears and community has gotten Bader thinking. His biggest fear? Needles. Which keeps him away from his local blood bank. Which is bad for his community, right? He admits he feels a bit hypocritical.

"I haven't gotten over this fear yet," he says. "But I'm thinking about it."