An economic meltdown is the doomsday Americans fear the most. Here’s why

One in five list climate change as the catastrophe they are most worried about, according to new polling from the Ipsos Consumer Tracker. One in four pick World War III. Fully a third say a total economic collapse in the U.S. is what keeps them up at night.

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  • Christopher Good Staff Writer for What the Future
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The Ipsos Consumer Tracker asks Americans questions about culture, the economy and the forces that shape our lives. Here's one thing we learned this week.

Chart showing which version of the apocalypse most Americans are worried about


The Doomsday Clock is 90 seconds to midnight. But which doomsday? 

In the latest round of the Ipsos Consumer Tracker, Ipsos polled Americans on various calamities that could be keeping them up at night. People were asked to select the scenario they feared the most from a list of twenty-first century Four Horsemen: climate change, World War III, another pandemic, total economic collapse in the U.S., and killer robots. Strikingly, only 9% said they weren’t worried about any of these scenarios. 

The poll found that 33% of Americans feared economic collapse the most — beating out the runner-up, WWIII, by eight percentage points, and giving it a considerable lead on climate change (19%), another pandemic (12%), and killer robots (just 2%). Mark Fisher wrote that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but the Americans we surveyed can imagine both. 

“This finding is consistent with previous studies suggesting consumers are extremely anxious about the economy despite recent positive economic indicators such as lower inflation and unemployment rates,” said Kevin Hung, a senior client officer at Ipsos who works with financial services clients. 

Psychology offers another perspective on this. Greg Gwiasda, a vice president in Ipsos’ behavioral science practice, points to accessibility bias – the human tendency to give more weight to information that comes to mind more easily. 

“The economy is a classic example of accessibility bias. Not only does it have a more direct daily impact on our lives than the other issues, but it is receiving a ton of attention by the media, political campaigns, and even brands.  People can therefore quickly and easily recall economic stories – typically negative – and thus infer it must be more likely,” Gwiasda said. 

“In contrast, climate stories remain a more consistent, but lesser storyline and thus we no longer pay as much attention to them, making it a bit harder to access a tangible climate story.”

Across ages, genders, and political affiliations, the results were surprisingly uniform. But when it came to climate change, the political divide was striking: 32% of democrats said climate change was their greatest doomsday fear, compared with just 6% of Republicans. Confirmation bias could play a part, Gwiasda suggests. 

“Political science tells us that the fate of party that holds the White House is linked to the strength of the economy. So right now, Republicans are more likely to accept that economic demise is imminent, as this is evidence of President Biden’s failed economic policies. Whereas Democrats are more receptive to thinking the economy, and by extension, President Biden, are on good footing. It would be fascinating to ask this question at the start of 2024 if Trump wins back the White House and see to what extent this gap flips.”

More insights from this wave of the Ipsos Consumer Tracker:

The Ipsos Care-o-Meter: What does America know about vs. what does America care about?

The author(s)
  • Christopher Good Staff Writer for What the Future