Government corruption. Terrorist attacks. Islamophobia. These are some of American citizens’ fears, according to Chapman’s third annual Survey of American Fears study released Oct. 12 by the Department of Sociology.
Edward Day, Department of Sociology chair and one of the researchers who spearheaded the survey, said that the main goal of the survey is to measure how societal factors affect various fears in America. The survey asked 1,511 adults across the U.S. about their level of fear on a variety of different topics.
“We were looking at fear. It’s clear that fear is driving a lot of behavior in our society,” Day said. “But no one was keeping track of what fear is over time or how it’s impacted by the media.”
Day said that the results indicated a fear of government corruption, with 60.4 percent of respondents admitting that they were “very afraid” of corrupt government officials. Although government corruption also topped the list in 2015, it rose about 2 percent, according to the 2016 version of the study.
“That’s bad for democracy,” Day said. “If (the U.S.) is supposed to be a citizen-involved government, and a lot of citizens don’t trust the government, you’re really getting into a bad area. It certainly looks like what people are afraid of are things that they depend on and they really can’t control.”
The survey also explored reactions to the fear of members of the Muslim religion, which is called Islamophobia, Day said. Nearly half of respondents said that they would feel uneasy with a mosque being built in their neighborhood, and one third of Americans have the mindset that Muslims tend to be terrorists and that Muslim immigration should be banned in the U.S.
Day, who was in charge of the section of the survey that probed into the phenomenon of Islamophobia, said that the fears topping the list are dangerous because they come from a single-minded perspective.
“What I think comes out of (the survey) is the danger of relying on a few small news sources,” Day said. “If you’re getting all your information from online, it tends to funnel you toward a certain perspective. That’s not good, because the only way to really know what’s going on is to go to multiple sources and multiple viewpoints.”
The survey also enlisted the help of student researchers, who helped to structure the survey in an interterm class.
Kai Hamilton Gentry, a junior political science major who worked on the survey, said that the results don’t surprise him.
“I think the top fears this year make complete sense when you consider the state of the nation,” Gentry said. “Corruption has dominated this election cycle and the acts of terror on our soil have made us hyperaware of that. This year, there seems to be a direct correlation between the fears and current events in our country.”
The survey also asked respondents if they believed that the government was hiding information about a variety of significant incidents, with more than half believing that the government is concealing facts about 9/11 and 49.6 percent believing the same about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
“It kind of aligns with the government corruption (results). Americans are willing to believe anything, it seems,” Day said.
In addition to asking respondents about nine famous conspiracy theories, researchers fabricated a conspiracy theory to test how respondents would react.
“We also asked if people thought the government was hiding information on the ‘North Dakota crash.’ That one we made up. About one third of Americans said yes,” Day said. “It’s sad, I don’t know how to describe it. People have become more willing to believe that there’s some nasty conspiracy going on.”
Day said that results of the survey seemingly also represents a larger trend of Americans beginning to distrust each other.
In the original survey released in 2014, results found that many Americans would be afraid to help someone on the side of the road.
“I remember that (years ago) helping someone by the side of the road was just expected, normal behavior,” Day said. “There’s something about (the survey results) that’s deeply sad. That we’ve turned into a society that distrusts each other more than we trust each other.”