Aug. 28, 2008 -- 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.
Some terms were a little more difficult to classify as true phobias or mere curiosities. The second most searched on term was "fear of long words," which may have its origins in an ironic urban legend–inspired definition. When searching on the term, we found several listings that claim the official Latin term to describe this fear is Hippopotomonstrosesquippedalio. (The actual Latin nomenclature for this fear is Sesquipedalophobia.)
People searching on this fear are probably just amused by the fact that someone's come up with such a long word for it, rather than truly identifying with the fear. Interestingly, in searching for an explanation of this phenomenon, I found several websites that claimed to offer a cure for the fear of long words, including one on which a "board-certified team specializes in helping individuals overcome fears, phobias & anxiety of all kinds, and is particularly focused on problems such as fear of long words." As I drilled further through these sites, however, it became clear that the site owners made liberal use of their word processor's search-and- replace functionality to create boilerplate text on every conceivable fear.
After all the filtering, we arrived at a list of the top searched-on fears for our sample. While the list isn't as direct as asking the question "What are you afraid of?", it is a view of what fears we are trying to understand, typed into search engines, which, unlike our friends, relatives, or therapists, are incapable of judging us.
Here are the top ten search terms from queries containing "fear of":
1. Flying 2. Heights 3. Clowns (which may also refer to the movie Fear of Clowns) 4. Intimacy 5. Death 6. Rejection 7. People 8. Snakes 9. Success 10. Driving
One of the most noticeable differences between the list of searches on fears and the phobia list compiled by the National Comorbidity Survey is that there is only one social fear in the Comorbidity Survey top nine, the fear of speaking publicly, versus four in the "fear of" searches: "fear of intimacy," "fear of rejection," "fear of people," and "fear of success."
Psychologists group our fears into specific categories, distinguishing between social phobias, or those fears that involve our interactions with other people, and specific fears, which might include the fear of heights, spiders, or public transportation.
The big question then is why our search patterns on fear show significantly more social fears than what were found based on a survey. Estimates are that 15 million Americans, nearly 6.8 percent of our populace over the age of eighteen, suffer from some form of social anxiety disorder. Yet if these numbers are calculated on the basis of a survey, it's entirely possible that we're undercalculating those afflicted with social fears. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, social phobia is defined as an anxiety disorder characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations. Social phobia can be limited to only one type of situation—such as a fear of speaking in formal or informal situations, or eating or drinking in front of others—or, in its most severe form, may be so broad that a person experiences symptoms almost anytime they are around other people.
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.
Specific phobias are entirely different, and truly demonstrate their unique nature. It's estimated that more than 18 million Americans over the age of eighteen suffer from specific fears, more than 8.7 percent of the U.S. population. There are several categories of specific fears, from animal phobias (spiders, mice, bunny rabbits, which shows up toward the end of the list), to situational phobias (flying, tunnels, bridges), to environmental phobias (storms, heights), to "other." "Other" is actually the most interesting group. As I wade through the sixteen hundred different "fear of" queries, I'm struck by just how individual our fears are. While the social anxiety around being with someone and the anxiety around being alone make up the head of the query stream, the long list of specific phobias makes up the long tail or unique set of phobia searches. Getting past more common fears, like the fear of flying, snakes, and clowns, reveals some truly bizarre specific fears. Departing from the ontology developed by mental health professionals, I've developed my own grouping for these oddities of anxiety, ordered by popularity.
Fear of different body parts appears numerous times within the list, from what appears to be a not entirely uncommon fear of being "touched on the neck," to fear of hair, teeth, skin, to the unique fears of elbows, feet, belly buttons, and more specifically the fear of "belly button lint," which may be an extension of the more popular "fear of dust." Our Internet searches also demonstrate the isolation of our society and our fear of other cultures, in fears that are hybrids between social and specific anxiety. Societal fear searches include queries such as "fear of German things," "fear of the French people," "fear of Mexicans," and "fear of Chinese culture."
If I were to guess, I would say that fears of subjects of study are harbored by our school-aged children, with "fear of math" topping the list, followed by "fear of biology" and "fear of physics," and very specific fears such as the "fear of the theory of relativity." While I haven't previously thought of my apprehension around Einstein's theory, terms like "time dilation" are certainly capable of causing me some unease.
Finally there are those fears that just defy categorization, such as the multiple occurrences of "fear of fear," also known as phobophobia. Are some of us so debilitated by the possibility of acquiring a phobia that the fear of having a fear itself becomes our primary fear?
I struggle to figure out the basis for some of the odd fears that show up in the tail of the fear search queries. Common causes for specific phobias include a past traumatic experience or a learned response. While the fear of the number 13 is certainly understandable, given the superstition attached to that number, what could possibly be a past traumatic experience or learned response that would cause someone the "fear of capital letters" or the "fear of odd numbers"?
Given the vast collection of fears that we search for, in some ways it's comforting to know that so many of us suffer the fear of something, in some cases rational, in others seemingly irrational. One of the fears that didn't surface in the list is the fear of the unknown. That's interesting given that one of the most popular queries is a quest for "how to" information. Perhaps since the explosion of information available on the Internet, the ratio of known to unknown has been on a rapid decline.
One extension of our fear searches, which confirms the potential of the Internet to become our confidant, is the nascent category of confessional websites. The online confession genre owes its genesis to Frank Warren, the author of the best-selling PostSecret, a collection of confessions submitted anonymously on postcards.
The concept, which started as an art project in 2004, led to the best seller and eventually in 2005 to a website that featured Internet-submitted confessions. In keeping with Internet tradition, several websites flourished by expanding on the idea of anonymous Web-based confessionals, such as the Experience Project, a confession website built around a social networking structure. Now not only could Web users submit their deepest, darkest secrets in anonymity, they could also get comments and responses from others who shared similar secrets.
Some confessional websites are devoted to specific predicaments or life stages. Truemomconfessions.com, for example, is an anonymous confession site devoted to the challenges of motherhood. The site's tagline is "Motherhood is hard, admit it." Perusing the site, you can find confessions such as "I love my kids. I love being a mom and wiping butts and cooking 'kid-friendly' meals. I do not, however, necessarily like my kids today," or "There were days I wished to God that I stopped at one." The founder of the site has also created other specific confessional sites, such as True Office Confessions, True Dad Confessions, and True Bride Confessions.
When we look at the demographics of visitors to confessional websites, it's clear that at this time, just the beginning for online confessions, there is an Early Adopter (see Chapter 10) for this type of activity. Visitors to these sites tend to skew female (70 percent), and live in affluent households in suburbia. Essentially, these websites are giving us a window into the online equivalent of Wisteria Lane.20 When we look at the collective activity on confessional websites, and what we choose to confess to search engines in the form of search queries, we have a pretty accurate collection of what weighs on our minds. While the Internet may cause us to withdraw from one another, the anonymity it affords us may, like the screen in a Catholic confessional, allow us the safety to admit things we wouldn't normally discuss with anyone else. This insight into the human condition isn't limited to what scares us or what we feel the need to confess. The increase in "how to" queries provides another treasure trove of online data, telling us what we want to learn.