The Scariest Animals, by the Numbers

By Elizabeth Preston | October 16, 2015 11:13 am

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Spiders are less scary than snakes, but scarier than clowns. That’s one of the findings of a survey of American fears published this week. The survey creators focused on the things Americans find most frightening: government corruption, cyber-terrorism, and tracking of their personal data, for example. But America’s creepy-crawlies have surely been waiting, in their drains and dark corners, to find out how they ranked.

Chapman University carried out the second annual Survey of American Fears, asking about 1,500 adults across the country how they felt about threats ranging from natural disasters to the paranormal. Last year, in the first version of this survey, they lumped all animals together. “How afraid are you of bugs, snakes, dogs, or any other animal/insect?” the survey asked. Most people answered “not afraid at all” or “somewhat afraid” (36 and 38 percent, respectively). But this year, each of these living things got its own question.

Spiders and insects

Spiders still had to share a survey item with bees and other bugs. Given that zombies and ghosts got their own categories, it might have been fairer to break this down: How afraid are you of stinging insects? What about classic household creepers like cockroaches and centipedes? Anyway, here are the results:

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 9.59.33 AMForty-one percent of people said they weren’t afraid of any bugs. (Judging by what happens when a bee flies around a potluck, some of these people are lying.) More than a quarter admitted to being either “afraid” or “very afraid.”

That means bugs are roughly as frightening to Americans as public speaking (38% not afraid, 28% afraid or very afraid). A question about heights got similar results: 42% of respondents are not afraid of heights, and 27% are afraid or very afraid. People afraid of spiders and heights presumably have to avoid both their basements and roofs, and stay in the middle floors of their houses.

Snakes

Snakes also got grouped together with other reptiles. But let’s be honest—most survey respondents were probably not imagining being menaced by a gecko or iguana.

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 10.00.08 AM

Roughly a third of people said they aren’t afraid of snakes at all (35%) and another third said they’re afraid or very afraid (33%). This makes snakes approximately as scary as a devastating tornado (37% not afraid, 32% afraid or very afraid) or a nuclear weapons attack (34% and 34%).

Mammals

The survey creators grouped dogs with rats and other animals, so anyone with a phobia of bats, cats or opossums would have been in this group too.

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 10.00.38 AMThese were the least scary animals, with about 59% of respondents denying any fear. About 13% said they were afraid or very afraid of one of these animals. What else is as non-threatening as a dog or rat? “Murder by a stranger” got similar results, with 60% not afraid and 16% afraid or very afraid.

Of course, being murdered by a stranger is a lot less likely than crossing paths with a dog, so people may be approaching these questions differently. One is a fear of a fatal hypothetical taking place, and the other is fear felt during a common experience. Speaking of non-hypotheticals, “whites no longer being the majority in the U.S.” had similar numbers: 60% of people said they weren’t afraid of this, and 18% said they were afraid or very afraid. (There was no category for those of us somewhat afraid of that 18%.)

In the battle to be American nightmare fuel, then, snakes are beating spiders. Dogs and other mammals are in third place. Meanwhile about 10% of people said they’re afraid or very afraid of ghosts, 9% of zombies, and 7% of clowns. Maybe next year the survey will include bees and opossums, and the race will really get interesting.

 

Help do some science! Want to be part of a scientific study without leaving your chair or sniffing a poop stick? I’ve teamed up with researcher Paige Brown Jarreau to create a survey of Inkfish readers. By participating, you’ll be helping me improve Inkfish and contributing Paige’s research on blog readership. You will also get FREE science art from Paige’s Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a t-shirt and other perks. It should take 10-15 minutes to complete the survey, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/mysciblogreaders. Thank you!!

 

Image: by James Murty (via Flickr)

Complete Survey of American Fears results here.

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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