ETSU professor co-authors book on ‘Causes and Consequences of Fear in America’

Published 1:40 pm Monday, April 13, 2020

JOHNSON CITY – Terrorism. Natural disasters. Spiders. Losing a job. Needles. Financial difficulty. Crime. Public speaking. Yes, zombies. And now, the novel coronavirus and the illness it causes, COVID-19.
These are just some of the things that Americans admit to being afraid of. What are the root causes of fears, and how do these fears affect the lives of those who hold them?
Those are some of the questions examined in a new book co-authored by East Tennessee State University sociologist Dr. Joseph O. Baker titled “Fear Itself: The Causes and Consequences of Fear in America,” which was published in March by New York University Press.
The book, which offers new insights into what people are afraid of and how fear affects their lives, was co-authored by Drs. Christopher D. Bader, L. Edward Day and Ann Gordon, all of Chapman University in Orange, California.
Baker, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in ETSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, says he and his colleagues were interested in looking at fears from a sociological and political perspective.
“There’s obviously a lot on fear from a psychological perspective, and even quite a bit in terms of biology and neuroscience, but much less has been done on the social patterns and distributions of particular fears, as well as how fears influence political views and actions,” Baker said.
Since 2014, the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, an annual, nationally representative survey of American adults, has been conducted to collect data on a wide range of fears, including partisan fears, fear of crime and terrorism, fear of natural and man-made disasters, conspiracy theories and social fears, such as xenophobia and Islamophobia.
“In addition to the wealth of new and novel survey data, we also did some field research in conspiracy theory subcultures and ‘doomsday prepper’ subcultures,” Baker said. “We combined this research with contemporary examples of cases where fears have resulted in particular social or political outcomes.”
While COVID-19 is not specifically mentioned in “Fear Itself,” because the book was published just prior to the outbreak, Baker notes that many aspects of fear are at play with the ongoing pandemic.
“Some of these fears are well-founded, such as people who are worried about their financial security and those who are in high-risk categories who are worried about their health and survival,” he said. “At the same time, we see a number of illegitimate fears on display, as Americans engage in such behaviors as hoarding.
“In addition, the pandemic has spawned a number of conspiracy theories, which is not surprising, because these thrive on fear and uncertainty – something we have repeatedly found in our research.”
Baker points to two things that are key regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and fear.
“First,” he says, “we need to separate legitimate concerns from those that are illegitimate. Since the health threat is real and serious, then we move to the second consideration, which is what actions to take. Here the key is to focus on actions aimed at ‘danger control’ rather than ‘fear control.’”
Baker says that danger control is recognizing that the threat is real and asking what can be done to reduce the threat.
“This is where following the recommendations of public health and medical experts is important, as they are attempting to give us methods of danger control,” he said. “Our job here is to do the best we can to follow those recommendations for the good of everyone in the community, particularly the elderly and immunocompromised.”
Fear control, on the other hand, focuses on removing the fear rather than the danger, which people attempt to do by minimizing or even ignoring the fear, which, in the case of COVID-19, could have dire consequences.”
“We have to do our best to simultaneously live with the very real fear and inconvenience that this pandemic has created and focus our efforts on mitigating the danger, rather than the fear itself,” Baker said. “In other words, we have to make fear useful and functional, and avoid its many negative potential outcomes, whether they are conspiracy theories or ignoring the source of the fear.
“Fear Itself: The Causes and Consequences of Fear in America” is available at and other major online booksellers. For more information, email Baker at

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