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The Things We Get Spooked About

What can our phobias teach us about our world?

Benoit Daoust/Shutterstock
Source: Benoit Daoust/Shutterstock

Biologically, fear is our defense against threat, but psychologically, it creates a very unpleasant state of mind.

Still, there are many times when we seek out fear intentionally. We like to scare ourselves a little, especially from a safe distance. Case in point: halloween. Scary costumes, haunted houses, cult movies. All in the name of fear. The lighter side of fear.

But there is, of course, a much darker side to fear, which we all know and experience. And when fear becomes overwhelming, paralyzing, and unyielding to any kind of common sense, there is an even darker side: phobias.

While most clinicians would say that depression and anxiety are the most common problems that clients come to address in therapy, the prevalence of phobias and their toxic impact on daily life should not be ignored. According to prevalence rates (the proportion of people who meet the criteria for a diagnosis in a given time period) from large epidemiological studies reported by the National Institute of Mental Health, about 6.7 percent of the population experience major depression and bipolar disorder, and about 3 percent experience generalized anxiety disorder.

Compare these numbers to the proportion of people who suffer from phobias. Agoraphobia, the intense fear of anxiety of being stuck in a place or situation from which it is hard to escape (e.g., crowded areas, open spaces, public transit), is found in approximately 1 percent of the population. Social phobia, however, which is characterized by a persistent, intense, and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others, followed by an overwhelming feeling of embarrassment for one’s public actions, affects almost 7 percent of people.

Even higher is the proportion of people who suffer from a specific phobia. Specific phobias are characterized by persistent fear and avoidance of a specific object or situation, like heights (acrophobia) or spiders (arachnophobia). In the U.S., the number of people who report a specific phobia is 8.7 percent.

What are the things that we are morbidly afraid of? According to a 2007 study published in European Psychiatry, the most prevalent specific phobias include fears of animals, such as dogs, snakes, spiders, and mice, followed by fear of blood and injections, fear of heights, fear of doctors (the medical kind, not Ph.D.'s), and fear of driving.

However, these are not the phobias about which Americans are seeking to know more. Scott Bay of contacted me to share a map he created showing which phobias Americans in different states are most curious about. From a purely scientific point of view, there is no reason to expect that there should be a geographic distribution of the types of phobias people are searching for. Why should people in Montana be more worried about developing glossophobia than people in Delaware? According to popular (though unfounded) belief, glossophobia (fear of public speaking) afflicts almost everyone, no matter where they are from.

The results, however, show two interesting findings. First, the fears people search for are not the same as the fears that they develop. Compare the findings of the earlier cited study classifying specific phobias by prevalence with the top five Google searches for phobias:


  1. Zoophobia (animals)
  2. Hematophobia (blood)
  3. Acrophobia (heights)
  4. Latrophobia (doctors)
  5. Vehophobia (driving)

Search Popularity

  1. Triskaidekaphobia (the number 13)
  2. Xenophobia (strangers)
  3. Coulrophobia (clowns)
  4. Trypophobia (irregular patterns or clusters of small holes or bumps)
  5. Thalassophobia (sea/sea travel)

The second interesting finding is that one of the most popular searches for phobias is "xenophobia." It the second-most frequent search, and the most highly searched phobia in 10 states (including CO, CT, IL, MA, MN, OK, RI, WA, and WI). Xenophobia is a fear of strangers or the unknown. People with xenophobia fear, dislike, and show contempt for people different from themselves, especially in terms of race or ethnic background. Some believe that xenophobia is the clinical manifestation of racism.

Why people are interested in learning about xenophobia, and why this shows up among the most popular searches for phobias in the last year, is not clear. It is nevertheless noteworthy that, in addition to being interested in the fear of the number 13 and the fear of clowns, people want to learn more about what makes us afraid of our differences and, hopefully, how to conquer those fears and discover common ground.

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