What do we fear most?

Or how confused are we?

“What do you fear the most?” This is always an interesting and deeply involving question, especially when it’s Halloween. Chapman University has conducted a survey on this question and the results are amazing.

A common understanding of the evolutionary reason for fears is that they are for the preservation of our species. For example, the fear of dangerous animals is there to force us to escape the danger to our lives.

But every now and then we discover fears that are more complicated. These are fears are developed in time and some are socially constructed. They are inscribed in our brains through the conditioning process. These fears are more interesting and discovering their roots is always an enjoyable (!) intellectual exercise.

The recent result published by Chapman University has done that intellectual exercise in a more systematic and objective way. The survey asked Americans about what they were afraid of. What they ended up with is a sort of satire, a dark comedy. The first impression probably is to laugh: “really?!”. But as the laughter subsides, you begin to think: “really?” [1]

The top ten fears are listed in the table below. If you want to have a look at the comprehensive list, you can check Chapman University’s website. I guarantee that you will find more amazing things there.


When I first read the results, after I finished laughing, a lot of questions rushed into my mind:

  • What do some of these fears even mean (or, how absurd a fear can be)?

For example, number 10 in the list is fear of Obamacare. Does it mean Americans are afraid of having medical support for everyone? Do they prefer to have no health insurance? Or, that they prefer to have it in exclusion of others?

One interesting point about this specific item is that a little further down the comprehensive list you can see the fear of having big medical bills! If you put these two propositions together, you see that while Americans don’t want universal healthcare, they don’t want to pay the bills, either. So, maybe the second postulation is correct that people want to have healthcare while others don’t.

Not funny enough? Let’s have another try and consider the fifth item: the fear of the government restriction on firearms and ammunition.

In what kind of scary, post-apocalyptic universe you must live to be in such a dire need of firearms? And how naïve you must be to believe that the only thing keeping you safe is to have a gun at home?

Not funny? No worries. The list is abundant with hilarious materials. Let’s look at number eight: the fear of identity theft. It means you are afraid or very afraid, even more than your loved ones becoming seriously ill, of someone stealing your identity. It doesn’t mean that you will stop living, it just means you will share it with someone else.

  • How have we changed and how ignorant are we about what really matters?

There are some items on the list that I think are more humane and better representatives of the human side of our fears. These are items that have been important issues for the survival of us, as individuals or as a society. Examples are the fear of your loved ones getting ill or dying. These are emotions that we are supposed to have so that our species continues to survive. But, the list fails to suggest that these are still our top priorities anymore.

  • What do these fears say about living in a democracy?

This question comes up when you read the top most fear, which, for me, is also the most ridiculous one: the fear of corrupt government officials. It reveals some serious issues:

  • This is the top fear, meaning that people are fearing it even more than death, of themselves or their loved ones.
  • The survey was conducted in the US, whose political system is supposed to be a democracy. Probably the most important features of this form of governance are the presence of checks and balances, the possibility of power circulation and the removal of unfit figures from power, in short, the possibility of changing a corrupt official.

Fearing corrupt government officials indicates the lack of belief in democracy or in whatever system is working in the U.S. in the name of democracy. In short, Americans don’t believe they are living in a true democracy, no matter how much, on the surface, they insist they are.

  • The fear of corrupt officials, even more than fearing death, also shows how deep we believe the government is involved in our lives. If you fear something more than your own life, it reveals how existentially important it is to you. In this case, the government has taken up this existentially important position.
  • How do we end up with these fears?

This is my main question of this post. To get to the answer easier, let’s focus more on items 1, 2, 4, 5, and 10. All these items are the ones that are most used in the media, especially as the title or topic of cover stories. It is true that there must be something important in these issues in the first place to make them attractive enough to become the cover stories. But there must be something else to make these made up things, in the sense that they are not historical, so scary.

I strongly believe that most of the absurd items on the list come from the fear-mongering media and politicians. They are repeated so much as scary, dangerous things that they are inscribed in our unconscious as fears. For instance, the fear of corrupt government officials being the number one fear seems to be rooted in the U.S. presidential campaign. Two of the prominent candidates in the primaries from both sides of the political spectrum, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, repeatedly targeted the corruption in the system, the establishment. The exaggerated emphasis on the corruption resonated well with the public and thus the media picked it up. It becoming the cover story gave the politicians incentive to use it even more, as has been one of Trump’s speeches most important topics. This has created a resonance effect, an ever expanding vicious circle with a cancerous growth.

The fear of terrorism is the same. Since the 9/11, terrorism has become a keyword for fear-mongering politicians and the media. It attracts people’s attention and is an effective tool to label and dehumanise your opponents. This is while the risk of being a victim to these attacks is fairly small. According to Allen B. Kruger in What Makes a Terrorist? Economics and the Roots of Terrorism, as of 2005, the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack for an American was one in five million, which was much less than being killed by lightning (Kruger, 2007). But since 9/11, the fear of terrorism and terrorist attacks (what might be the difference, I don’t know) has been much greater than the actual risk.

In fact, the ignorance is the most important factor in the creation or perpetuation of these fears. The fear of corrupt politicians comes from the lack of knowledge about the political rights and possibilities available to the citizens to keep the system open and democratic. The bloated fear of terrorism and terrorist attacks comes from the fact that many people do not even know what terrorism is (for a proper definition, have a look at my other post To chill out or not to chill out). The fear of Obamacare is because nobody bothers to get into the technicality of the healthcare system. And so are the rest.

And many in the media and politics know this fact. And some of them intentionally use this ignorance to create rootless fears and subsequently, use them, in the form of empty signifiers, to manipulate those people for their own purposes. And they can keep doing so while we refuse to think, question and READ.


1. While this is survey was conducted on Americans and the result is probably more relevant to the context of that country, I think the absurdity of a lot of fears is the same all over the world.

Photo credit: Chapman University

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