The following excerpt of Bill Tancer's book was provided to ABC News by the publisher, Hyperion Books.
What are you afraid of? It's a simple question, but your answer may depend on who is asking the question or the setting in which you're answering. Imagine you're talking with friends, maybe at the water cooler or over cocktails, when the topic of phobias comes up. How do you answer?
Your response might be similar to the results of the National Comorbidity Survey, a study of more than eight thousand respondents in the United States. In that study, those who agreed to be surveyed were asked about what they fear. From their answers, a list of the top nine groups of fears was developed:
1. Bugs, mice, snakes, and bats 2. Heights 3. Water 4. Public transportation 5. Storms 6. Closed spaces 7. Tunnels and bridges 8. Crowds 9. Speaking in public
But how truthful are our statements about our fears, even if those statements are being made to the faceless voice of a telephone surveyor? Aren't we all, in some way, concerned about being judged for our fears, perceived as being weak or irrational?
Back at Hitwise in San Francisco, I sat on the floor of the office of one of my analysts, LeAnn Prescott, throwing a NERF Ball in the air as we held an impromptu brainstorm session for posts that we could write to the blog. We were talking specifically about understanding society's collective conscience at any given moment by using search terms as the key to those thoughts. We considered separating out from the millions of unique searches in our database just those that contained the question "why," as a way of understanding what people were seeking to understand, or "how to," as the key to what people want to learn to do.
I can't remember which of us came up with the idea, but it was brilliant: to look for all search terms that contained the term "fear of," as a way of understanding and potentially ranking our phobias, on the theory that some of us must be using search engines and the Web to try to understand our fears.
I walked over to LeAnn's desk so that I could see the results. I was expecting to find a handful of terms, summarizing the most common fears. I was shocked when our system pulled 1,686 unique searches in a four-week period that contained the term "fear of." By quickly running through the list, I could see (1) the fears that we search on are not ranked in the same order as what appeared on the National Comorbidity Survey, and (2) our fears are unique, very specific, and in some cases, downright weird.
To create my list of the top phobias, the first task was to filter for nonphobic "fear of" queries. "Fear," after all, shows up in a variety of places, such as song lyrics; terms such as "Fear Before the March of Flames," an experimental rock band from Aurora, Colorado; educational queries such as "Definition of Fear"; and, of course, queries such as "The Girls of Fear Factor." After removing those terms that were clearly not phobia searches, we still found well over one thousand unique fears to analyze.