The Fear Factor: Why we have phobias

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night to grab a glass of water and felt compelled to hurry through the house, lest you find something lurking in the dark?

Too easy for you? How about walking at midnight through a graveyard?

If these thoughts are scary to you, you’re not alone. Nearly 40% of the (UK) population said that they were afraid to walk in their houses while the lights were off. 

People have always harboured strange fears. In the 19th century, for instance, people started fearing the prospect of being buried alive.[1] Tales spread of bodies laid in coffins peacefully and found days later with their limbs twisted and expressions of terror.

Although uncommon, alive burials could happen due to medical malpractices. This lead to people developing deep-seated fear of being buried. Taken from Inverse.

At the time, the lack of modern medical technology led to mispronounced deaths. This fear, called taphophobia, was so prevalent that it led to the invention of safety coffins. These had transparent lids with a rope attached to a bell so people could signal for help.[2]

Now, the vast majority of people will never experience an alive burial. Regardless, we still feel an uncanny sense of dread when we picture the possibility. Most phobias work this way. Most are generally based on traumatic experiences a person has had. Irrational fears can, however, haunt us for a myriad of different reasons. Here are a few of the most common ones.

Biology and Illness

Research has shown that genetics have a lot to do with how likely you are to develop phobias. Phobic disorders (the pathological kind) are inheritable. In fact, several genes correlate with the development of phobias.[3] Moreover, people who have developed irrational fears tend to have more than one. We call this “comorbidity” in clinical psychology. 

Here’s an example: Let’s say Sam has a blood-injury-injection phobia. It is likely that they are also uncomfortable in public restrooms because it represents the risk of contracting a disease. Similarly, they might also be afraid of snakes, presumably because a snake bite feels like an injection.[4] These types of associations might seem like a stretch, but phobias can prompt people like Sam to avoid plenty of situations that could resemble their trigger. 

Our Experiences

While our genetics can alter the risk of developing phobias, it’s our experiences that really determine our fears. A seemingly harmless stimulus (say, a dog) can be paired with a frightening one (for example, a bite) and become a source of anxiety. This is called conditioning.

The ‘Little Albert’ experiment is nowadays regarded as highly unethical, but its results provided insight into the conditioning of phobias. Taken from Timeline.

The ‘Little Albert’ experiment perfectly showed how we can condition phobias.[5] Watson and Rayner carried out this experiment in 1920, with a baby participant Albert. First, they showed Albert a white rat; it was cute and harmless. Immediately after the white rat appeared, the researchers struck a hammer against a steel bar, making a loud noise. This startled Albert, making him cry. The rat-noise succession occurred a few more times until Albert cried just by seeing the rat alone. 

Phobias can even develop by watching other people’s experiences. An experiment used videos of various objects startling monkeys. When members of the species saw their peers react in fear, they too developed a fear response. This “fear contagion”, however, only occurred with evolutionarily relevant stimuli (for example, snakes), and not with random ones (like flowers).[6]

Ancestral Fears

While some phobias are common, like a fear of heights, others you may never have heard of, like being afraid of mushrooms. In fact, a small number of stimuli make up most human phobias. This is because generations of evolution have marked those few things as dangerous.

Evolutionary psychology proposes that phobias typically develop in response to stimuli that have been perilous to humans for ages. We are afraid of potentially venomous animals like spiders and snakes. Environmental hazards (like cliffs and tornadoes), as well as blood (indicative of wounds), are popular fears. This is called the preparedness hypothesisa biological predisposition to fear certain stimuli. Our ancestors learned to avoid these things in order to survive,[7] so now we learn to fear them more easily. 

Blood-injury-injection phobia might be an evolution-developed response—staying still would make predators lose interest and leave their prey alone.[8] Taken from Healthline.

Humans have developed fear and threat-detection mechanisms because being afraid is a signal to avoid danger. Hypersensitivity to fear, however, exploits that mechanism and applies it to things that logically would not harm us. For example, garden hoses might startle us because they resemble snakes. While confusing a gardening tool for a venomous animal is better than the opposite, phobias can trigger fight-or-flight responses in the most surprising moments.[9]

Cultural Phobias

Not every phobia, however, owes it to evolution. Some fears are specific to a given culture. For example, taijin kyofusho is a type of fear response pertaining almost exclusively among Japanese people. People who experience it may fear showing certain physical traits or behaviour—their appearance, their actions, or even their body odour.[10] This is a social phobia because it’s based on the prospect of interpersonal interactions. Taijin kyofusho is so pervasive that Japanese clinicians recognise it as a disorder. 

Taijin kyofusho is closely related to Japanese social norms of courtesy and respect. It is considered a mental illness akin to social anxiety. Taken from Tofugu.

Our initial example of taphophobia is also cultural—it appeared in societies where misdiagnoses were (or are) common. Yet another example is koro, an Asian-bound delusional disorder where males fear the retraction of their genitals into their body.[11] In this case, the cause might be religious or folkloric beliefs rather than medical malpractice. Regardless, it is unlikely (yet not impossible) that someone not familiar with the originating culture developed a similar phobia. 

The Bottom Line

Coming back to the prospect of being afraid of the darkness in your own house—it’s totally normal. There are ample reasons as to why we foster irrational fears. From our own genetics and inherited experiences to the social context where we grow, phobias appear because they are a manifestation of our will to survive. However, while fear might be useful during a life-threatening situation, phobias generally impede people from leading normal lives. They qualify as mental disorders and, while we won’t get into detail regarding therapies or coping strategies, we do advise to use the term cautiously.

Most importantly, however, we hope that the understanding that irrational fears are merely the outcome of a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors will bring you reassurance next time you venture in the hallway during the night. Chances are there are not any monsters in the closet, under the bed or waiting around the corner. 

But of course, you will never know for sure.


Academic References

  1. Wójcicka, N. (2011). The living dead: The uncanny and nineteenth-century moral panic over premature burial. Styles of Communication2(1).
  2. Cascella, M. (2016). Taphophobia and “life preserving coffins” in the nineteenth century. History of Psychiatry, 27(3), 345–349.
  3. Smoller, J. W., Gardner-Schuster, E., & Covino, J. (2008). The genetic basis of panic and phobic anxiety disorders. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part C: Seminars in Medical Genetics, 148C(2), 118–126.
  4. Loken, E. K., Hettema, J. M., Aggen, S. H., & Kendler, K. S. (2014). The structure of genetic and environmental risk factors for fears and phobias. Psychological Medicine, 44(11), 2375–2384.
  5. Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1–14.
  6. Mineka, S., & Cook, M. (1986). Immunization against the observational conditioning of snake fear in rhesus monkeys. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 307–318.
  7. Seligman, M. E. P. (1971). Phobias and preparedness. Behaviour Therapy, 2, 307–320.
  8. Blood-injury phobia: a review. (1988). American Journal of Psychiatry, 145(10), 1207–1213.
  9. Russell, M. J., Maslej, M. M. & Andrews, P. W. (2015). Role of evolution. In: I. Milosevic & R. McCabe (Eds.), Phobias: The psychology of irrational fear, an encyclopedia, pp. 130-133. ABC-CLIO.
  10. Bertenthal, B. I., & Campos, J. J. (1984). A Reexamination of Fear and Its Determinants on the Visual Cliff. Psychophysiology, 21(4), 413–417.
  11. Smith, D., Mayes, T., & Smith, R. (2012). Culture-specific diagnoses. Encyclopedia of immigrant health, 49-64.

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