Odds of Being Afraid

Life is made up of a string of decisions that influence our behaviors and affect how we live on a day-to-day basis. And fear plays a large factor in developing these behavioral patterns. So what are we most afraid of as a society? Are these fears unlikely to manifest, or do we have an even greater, unexpected chance of encountering something we never knew could be so dangerous?

To answer questions like these, we surveyed 1,000 Americans to see what they fear most. Their answers may surprise you. Keep reading to see if some of the most common fears are likely to occur in your lifetime.

Fraught with Fear

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If fear has the power to drive us, what do we fear the most? And what are the odds of these petrifying possibilities happening to us? From being crushed by our own furniture to a nuclear war, we asked survey respondents to rate their fears on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 not at all fearful and 7 being extremely fearful.

Odds aside, the No. 1 fear among Americans was developing cancer, which averaged a score of 4.8. The subsequent top two fears included getting in a car accident (4.6) and developing heart disease (4.3).

The three scenarios with which Americans rested most easily were an increase in U.S. border control (1.9), being crushed by a piece of their own furniture (2.0), and being seriously injured by fireworks (2.2).

Top Fears of Men and Women

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We analyzed survey responses based on each participants reported gender and discovered the top five fears of men and women. As it turns out, men and women fear some of the same things. The top four fears regardless of gender were developing cancer, getting in a car accident, developing heart disease, and having a stroke.

How do these fears stack up with reality? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for men and women. In America, 1 in 4 deaths are attributed to it. Cancer is a substantiated fear, with almost half of men and a little over a third of women having some form of it during their lifetime.

Both men and women listed getting into a car accident as their second greatest fear (tied with heart disease for men). In reality, you are more likely to die from a stroke (which was listed as No. 4 for both genders). The odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are 1 in 114, whereas stroke causes 1 in 20 deaths in the U.S.

In fact, women are more likely than men to experience a stroke because of longer life spans and reproductive factors. On the other hand, more men are killed in car accidents each year because they spend more time behind the wheel and are more likely to engage in risky driving behaviors.

Where did our participants disagree? Women rated nuclear war as their No. 5 top fear, whereas men said identity theft was among their biggest concerns. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, identity theft affects about a million more women than men each year.

Fear Across The U.S

When we broke down the top fears by region, we discovered people were most fearful of cancer, identity theft, and terrorism. On a scale of 1 (not at all fearful) to 7 (extremely fearful), the Northeast was the most afraid, raiting cancer a 5, identity theft a 4 (the same rating for the Southwest), and terrorism a 3.3.

Other top fears included being shot, colliding with a deer while driving, and being bit by a venomous snake. The Southwest had the greatest fear of being shot (3.9), while the Midwest was the least fearful (3.3) of this scenario. However, the Midwest and Northeast was most fearful of the situations mentioned above, respondents from this region only rated an encounter with a venemous snake a 2.9.

The Chances of Facing a Fear

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Facts aside, we all have reasons for why we choose to fear one thing over another. For example, according to our survey, people are about equally afraid of dying in a plane crash as they are of being shot or murdered. The facts tell us that over 33,500 people are killed; with a firearm in the United States each year, while 271 people died worldwide in aircraft incidents in 2016. So what do Americans believe is the likelihood of facing the things that terrify them most?

According to our survey, the greatest discrepancy among the top fears and the likelihood of them occurring was related to plane crashes. The average American rated their fear of being in a plane crash a 3.5, but the probability of it happening was only a 1.7.

The greatest fear was developing cancer (4.9), but the anticipated likelihood of experiencing it was a 3.9. The only scenario Americans feared less than its perceived likelihood was food poisoning. On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being extremely fearful, food poisoning was only rated a 3.0, while the odds of it happening were rated a 3.5. While there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. each year, approximately 3,000 people will perish after eating contaminated food.

The scenario where expectation and perceived reality lined up the closest was being bit by a dog. Participants reported an average fear of 2.7, with the likelihood of it happening being 2.6.

Fearful Odds

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The greatest fear for men and women was developing cancer, although men felt it was less likely to occur (a 3.6 versus 4.3 for women) despite the fact that more men than women are likely to develop cancer.

The second largest discrepancy in what people feared the most versus what they expected to happen was associated with being murdered. Women reported a greater fear (3.9) of being slain than men (3.4) and had a greater expectation of it occurring. In reality overall, your chances of being a victim of gun violence are similar to that of a car accident in the United States. When broken down by gender, men die more often from firearms than women.

Both men and women reported losing their job to an automated system as a fear that was rated closest with their expectation. Men rated their fear a 2.7 versus a 2.6 for women, while the likelihood of experiencing this fear was rated a 2.5 by men and a 2.4 by women. According to NPR, the job that is most likely to be replaced by automated systems in the next 20 years is telemarketing (a 99% likelihood). The two jobs that are least likely to be automated are mental health and substance abuse social workers and occupational therapists (a 0.3% likelihood).

Precarious Precautions

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Which fears cause people to change the way they live? According to our survey, the answer to this question differs based on gender. The majority of men said the fear of losing their job to automation forced them to change their behavior (69%), while the fear of experiencing complications during childbirth caused the majority of women (82%) to make behavioral changes.

However, around the same percentage of men and women said the fear of becoming deathly ill with the flu, getting in a car accident, being bit by a dog, getting food poisoning, and being struck by lightning caused them to change their way of living.

Cautious Consequences

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Do you consider yourself to be outgoing and socially active, or do you find yourself focusing inward and hard-pressed to relate to others? Whether you approach life as an extrovert or introvert can affect how you face your fears. According to our survey, introverts were more likely to change their behaviors based on their fears, whereas only a small percentage of extroverts reported behavioral changes.

Whether you’re looking to make a friendly wager on the team that will win the next season of “The Amazing Race” or are participating in a “Survivor” pool, use this information to tip the odds in your favor.

The largest percentage of introverts (77%) said they changed their behavior based on their fear of being bit by a shark, and 76% changed their behavior because of the chance of being in a skydiving accident. However, only 23% and 24% of extroverts reported the same, respectively. The odds of dying while skydiving are 1 in 165,172 skydives. And the odds of dying from a shark attack are only 1 in 3.7 million.

However, becoming deathly ill from the flu was the fear that caused the greatest behavioral change among extroverts (39%). Although this was the least of the introverts worries, becoming deathly ill from the flu has a far greater chance of occurring than death by shark attack or skydiving. The odds of dying from the flu are 1.4 in 100,000.

Fearful We Stand

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We asked survey participants to weigh in on what caused them the greatest fear when it came to Americans political climate. The top politically charged fears had to do with nuclear war, climate change, health care, freedom of speech and press, education, gun control, abortion, and LGBTQ rights.

The top three fears were nuclear war (56%), climate change (56%), and a lack of health care coverage for pre-existing conditions (55%). Further, 24% of Americans feared LGBTQ rights regressing, and 28% feared anti-abortion legislation tightening.

May The Odds Be Ever in Your Favor

Fear remains in the eye of the beholder. What affects one person enough to cause a behavioral change may hardly faze the next person in line. Weather you choose to live life by probability or just want to let the chips fall where they may, the life we live is composed of the choices we make or don't make. So skip the trip to the beach, or take the train instead of an airplane. Whatever makes you enjoy life more, the choice is yours. And as always, may the odds be ever in your favor.


We surveyed 1,000 Americans about their top fears and the anticipated probability of each fear occuring.

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