Why our fear of technology is greater than our fear of death

In 2015 Chapman University in the United States undertook researchers to find out what Americans feared. 1,500 participants ranked 88 different items on a scale of one (not afraid) to four (very afraid). So, what did they find?



It turns out people (or American people at least) are more afraid of technology than they are of death.

​Of the top five fears in the survey, three were technology related. Cyberterrorism came in at number two, corporate tracking of personal data came in at number three and Government tracking of personal data came in at number five. In fact, robots replacing the workforce (25), trusting artificial intelligence to do work (34), robots (38) and artificial intelligence (40) all ranked above ‘death’ which didn’t make an appearance until position 43.

​So why are so many people more scared of technology than they are of death?

​In general, the things we fear have three common characteristics:

​Firstly, the outcomes are undesirable. People who suffer from acrophobia, or a fear of heights, don’t fear heights per se, they fear what would happen if they were to fall. We are more likely to fear things where the outcome would be to either lose something we already value or miss out on something that we really want.

​Secondly, the outcome is somewhat uncontrollable. Galeophobia, or a fear of sharks is compounded by the fact shark behaviour appears unpredictable, they are much faster swimmers than humans are…and it’s hard to see them coming. To assert control people with galeophobia are likely to avoid going in the water altogether (and for extreme sufferers this might extend to avoiding inland lakes and rivers even though there is no possible risk of sharks being present).

​Thirdly, the outcomes feel unavoidable. Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears because in our day to day lives spiders are so hard to avoid. You might argue that people with galeophobia can avoid their fear by avoiding swimming at the beach, but as soon as they go near a large body of water, even an inland lake with no possibility of sharks, their fear once again comes to the surface.

​At this point it is also worth defining the subtle difference between fear and anxiety. Although closely linked, one way of understanding the difference between the two is familiarity. Fear is a based on genuine, well understood threat whereas anxiety is a mostly unfounded feeling of concern. From this perspective a fear of heights, sharks and spiders can be seen as quite legitimate, on other hand, very few people are familiar enough or informed enough about artificial intelligence to be genuinely fearful. It is more likely that they are suffering from a bout of digital anxiety.

​Now back to our comparison between the fear of death and our fear (or anxiety) around technology.

​It is fair to say that both technology and death can create undesirable outcomes (though death perhaps more so) and in our current reality both technology and death are unavoidable. The real difference between the two is that we have a greater sense of control over death than we do over cyberterrorism, artificial intelligence and robots. This is not to say that we can cheat death over the long term but on a daily basis we have a fairly well tuned sense of how to avoid it happening prematurely (such as looking before we cross the road and not drinking paint stripper).

​But it’s not just at a societal level that these anxieties about technology are being experienced, they are just as likely to occur within organisations. Some of the fears identified in the survey can be directly linked to the workplace (robots replacing the workforce, trusting artificial intelligence to do work). In addition, there are also more immediate issues that people are dealing with such as how to use the new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system or who might read what I write on Slack/Yammer/Microsoft Teams.

​It is perhaps unsurprising that in the current era of organisational digitisation (or digital transformation) has seen an escalation on technology related anxiety. The desire to roll out multiple technology solutions quickly means that people are being given less time and less support to build familiarity with the technology they are expected to use. This lack of familiarity means people are both less likely to see the opportunity that such systems offer but also, they are more likely to catastrophise the outcomes of getting it wrong. This in turn leads to them exerting what limited control they feel that they have over technology, they take every opportunity to avoid it. As a result, organisations are experiencing an increased sense of ‘push back’ on technology deployment.

​This anxiety around new technology is not new. We have most recently experienced concerns about WIFI frying our brains, prior to that it was the risks associated with sitting too close to the TV, before that it was concerns about telephones being the communication device of the devil (and this was prior to the inception of telemarketing) and earlier than that again was a belief that the speed of steam powered train travel would make our bodies explode.

​In each case people have eventually managed to overcome these anxieties and as a result take advantage of the opportunity that each of these technologies represented. Eventually our experience of artificial intelligence, robotics and CRM will be no different. The question is, are we willing to wait for this anxiety to dissipate naturally over time (in which case we forgo the short-term benefit that such technologies bring) or do we intervene to help people overcome these anxieties sooner?

​A successful intervention is fundamentally based on helping people building familiarity. To build familiarity we need to provide users a safe and supported environment in which to experiment and test out new technology, and if we want people to start actively experimenting we first need them to believe that doing so is worth their time. What this means is that ultimately, if we want people to overcome their anxieties and adopt new technology we first need to help them identify what’s in it for them, not necessarily what’s in it for us.

​Most technology decisions are so often made by a small handful of people for benefit of the organisation. This approach is based on the premise that employees have no choice as to what technology they use but this is not true at all. People always have a choice, they have a choice to avoid, a choice to subvert, or more drastically, they have a choice to leave.

​If we want our digital transformation programs to succeed, if we want people to adopt and use the technology solutions that are being deployed, if we want to build an innovative culture that helps us retain our best talent, then we will first need a rethink on how we engage with, understand and support our people to use the incredible technology that is now available to them. 

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