If these social phobias are characterized by excessive self-consciousness, how would a person suffering from this fear respond to another individual conducting a survey about their fears? Wouldn't this be the perfect example of the cognitive dissonance issue that we discussed in the first chapter? But take the surveyor out of the equation and replace him or her with a nonjudgmental tool that can access massive volumes of data, and this search data may hold the key to a more realistic gauge of our social fears.
I often bring search lists with me on trips and spend time poring over them to pass time during long flights. One of the most entertaining and enlightening lists to review was this list of "fear of" searches. Within the top one hundred searches, twenty are some form of social fear, but as you dive deeper into the list of one-thousand-plus fear searches, the strongest recurring theme that presents itself is the battle between two types of social anxieties: the fear of commitment and the fear of being alone. Perhaps these searches don't rise to the level of clinical anxieties, but if search patterns are any indication, these two opposing concerns are on the minds of many of us. Since we're not asking people directly what they are afraid of, there are some alternative explanations to the dueling fears of being alone and not being alone. One possibility is that searches like "fear of intimacy" and "fear of commitment" are actually the keystrokes of someone other than the fearful, such as the significant other in a troubled relationship.
Here are the top fifteen social "fear of" searches:
1. Intimacy 2. Rejection 3. People 4. Success 5. Crowds 6. Failure 7. Sex 8. Commitment 9. Public speaking 10. Being alone 11. Love 12. Girls 13. Falling in love 14. Abandonment 15. Broken heart
There may be something more significant going on here. It's clear that social fears exist with more frequency in online searches than they appear in survey results. The difference in fear rankings may demonstrate that the survey responses are not truly reflecting what we're afraid of, but could our social fears also be exacerbated by the online experience itself? The mere fact that we choose to query a search engine versus talking to a friend, relative, or health professional about our fears suggests that we find more comfort and privacy conversing with an algorithm on these matters than we would seeking help from one another. The problem becomes even greater as we delve into the very strange world of specific fears.