Back to previous page

Why are some people more afraid than others?

By ,

There’s plenty of frightening stuff going on in the world today — diseases, revolutions, natural disasters, nuclear accidents — so it makes sense that we’d all walk around with some level of fear in our daily lives. But who among us is most afraid, and why? In a fascinating academic study titled “The Geography of Fear,” UCLA political scientist Daniel Treisman sets out to map the world’s fright, exploring why certain people stress out about their futures more than others.

Treisman focuses on European nations, where data on fear are most readily available, and finds that surveys spanning the past decade vary quite a bit from country to country. “When the object of fear is nuclear war, epidemics, or serious medical errors, survey respondents in Portugal are two to three times as likely as those in the Netherlands to say they are afraid,” Treisman writes. “More than 80 percent of Greeks report worrying about the spread of weapons of mass destruction, genetically modified foods, and new viruses; in each case, fewer than 50 percent of Finns say the same.”

Treisman finds that southern Mediterranean countries — Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain — are the most fearful across the board, followed by post-Communist countries in Eastern Europe. The Dutch, Finns and Austrians report the lowest levels of fear overall.

The differences appear largely unrelated to the actual risks involved. For instance, fear of contracting swine flu in 2009 tended to be lower in countries with higher infection rates, while some of the countries most worried about mad-cow disease (such as Latvia and Lithuania) had almost no experience with the ailment.

What causes the differences in fears? The data don’t allow Treisman to draw clear conclusions, but “certain conjectures fit the evidence better than others,” he writes. Some are related to natural pessimism; if you overestimate the chance of bad things happening, you’ll fear them more. A recent experience of authoritarian rule also appears to increase fear. And belief in heaven (less fear) and hell (more fear) might play a role, too — even if, these days, there’s plenty going on in the world to keep folks up at night.

© The Washington Post Company