Forget natural disasters, high medical bills and zombies. What Americans most fear is far more insidious: government corruption. That's according to the third annual Chapman University Survey of American Fears.
The 2016 poll asked more than 1,500 American adults to consider a wide range of fears that fall into one of 11 categories: crime, economic, environment, government, illness and death, immigration/demographic changes, man-made disasters, natural disasters, personal fears, relationships and technology. "Corrupt government officials" was the top pick, with 60.6 percent of respondents saying they were "afraid" or "very afraid" of them.
The other nine major fears held by Americans were:
· Terrorist attack (41 percent)
· Not having enough money for the future (39.9 percent)
· Terrorism (38.5 percent)
· Government restrictions on firearms and ammunition (38.5 percent)
· People I love dying (38.1 percent)
· Economic/financial collapse (37.5 percent)
· Identity theft (37.1 percent)
· People I love becoming seriously ill (35.9 percent)
· The Affordable Health Care Act/Obamacare (35.5 percent)
Lower down on the list were crime-related fears like mugging, sexual assault and walking alone at night, all at around 21 percent. Dying came in at 19 percent.
This is quite a contrast to 2014, when the survey was first conducted. Back then the No. 1 fear was walking alone at night, followed in order by: becoming the victim of identity theft; safety on the internet; being the victim of a mass/random shooting; and public speaking. The 2015 list was more like the 2016 list, with "corrupt government officials" also ranking as the thing Americans feared the most.
So, what happened between 2014 and 2015? "I do think it reflects a sort of desperation and I definitely think it is media driven," says Ed Day, Ph.D., chair of the sociology department at Chapman University and one of the researchers involved with the survey. He spoke with Julie Douglas on a new episode of The Stuff of Life podcast called "Studies in Desperation."
Day noted that the primary season started in 2015 and was in full swing in 2016. "Our national leaders were telling our population that our government was corrupt and no good. Not a surprise that Americans believed them."
New to the 2016 survey was a look at Americans' belief in conspiracy theories. More than half of the respondents thought the government isn't telling citizens everything it knows about the 9/11 attacks, while almost 43 percent felt the government has intel on alien encounters that it isn't sharing.
At the same time, the survey found that just 25 percent believed aliens have visited the earth in modern times. "That to me points to the level of dysfunction we now have as citizens about our government — that we believe they're hiding things about things that we don't believe actually happened," says Day.
To hear more about this survey, as well as about other desperate times in American history, download The Stuff of Life podcast "Studies in Desperation."