Monday, February 28, 2011

A Recipe for Phobia

Today's post is in response to a question from Lenny Lee, whose MC has an intense fear of clowns, otherwise known as Coulrophobia.

If you're wondering, the prefix, "coulro", actually comes from the Ancient Greek term for "stilt-walker".

Anyway, Lenny's MC is in the circus, so having coulrophobia could really cramp his style. For the purposes of characterization, Lenny wanted to know what could cause someone to be afraid of clowns. Well.

Exhibit A
There is a bit of research to suggest that children might be afraid of clowns simply because of their appearance. From birth, babies recognize and respond to the human face. That's what we're programmed to do. They pay extra attention to the face, in fact, and attend to it more than anything else. So when a body type is human-shaped but the face is somehow distorted, like, say, with a giant red nose and exaggerated mouth ... yeah. There's a mismatch there, and some kids react with fear.

But Lenny's question is excellent overall, because there are all types of phobias, and it makes sense to wonder where they come from.

First, fear is adaptive. Many people have phobias for things that it makes some sense to be afraid of, evolutionarily speaking. Like spiders, snakes, heights, etc. Although these things are rarely an actual threat for those living in modern civilization, there was a time when these things presented a real danger. This is related to that double-edge I keep mentioning. Fear is our friend, when it's appropriate. It keeps us safe and out of harm's way. But if it's misdirected or too extreme, it can really cause trouble.

Second, some people are just genetically predisposed to anxiety.  This is well-established in research, but also, I can tell you that I rarely see an anxious child in my office with a parent who denies a history of anxiety in the family. It's almost always there. Some people are just wired to attend to threatening stimuli more closely than others, and their sympathetic nervous systems are wired to respond with an extreme fight-or-flight reaction.

Third, sometimes, things happen. Many phobias are the result of a traumatic incident, often, but not necessarily, in childhood. Like getting stung by a bee and developing a fear of bees. I've worked with kids who had a choking scare and refused to eat. Any scary incident could result in a phobia that ranges from short-lived to lifelong.

Please pet me.
Fourth, sometimes things get generalized. A scary experience can morph as it gets processed by our brains. A fear of vaccinations can become a fear of doctors, and then of visiting a medical facility in general. Sometimes the phobia includes associated experiences or people. This happens by classical conditioning.

Did you ever hear about that poor kid, Albert, who was punked by an evil psychologist? Or, erm, technically speaking, the psychologist, John Watson, conditioned Albert to be afraid of white rats. He did this by sounding a loud noise every time baby Albert reached out to pet the rat (this was the 1920s, when parents were apparently less squeamish about allowing their babies to pet rodents). By pairing the scary noise with the cute rodent, Watson taught baby Albert to fear the adorable white rat.

Please pet me?
Albert's fear actually generalized to other fluffy white things, including Watson himself,  who appeared before him in a Santa Claus get-up with a beard made out of cotton balls. I can't imagine why a small child would have been afraid of that.

So, for the purposes of Lenny's story, his MC might just have a natural fear of clowns from childhood, which may be exacerbated by a genetic predisposition to anxiety. Or the phobia could have developed from a particularly scary experience with a clown (from a child's perspective, this could be as simple as an unfamiliar adult in a clown mask getting too close to him). Or, additionally, the fear could have developed from a negative experience, like maybe getting hurt or lost or sick at a circus, and seeing a clown while feeling that way, which would lead to an association between feeling bad or hurt and clowns.

There you go. A recipe for delicious, delicious phobia.

Do you have a phobia? I myself have a fear of parallel parking. I am fully aware of the ways I could cure this fear (by, uh, doing it over and over again in increasing degrees of difficulty), but I have not yet undertaken such an endeavor. How about you? If you do have a phobia, how does it get in your way? Or is it just a normal fear? Remember, to have a phobia, it has to actually IMPAIR you in some way.

I love psychology-related writing questions, so please keep them coming!

Be sure to check out Laura's  Mental Health Monday post, which also features a question from a reader today (about bipolar disorder), as well as Lydia's Medical Monday post.


  1. Woo! Phobias! And I had to laugh when you mentioned parallel parking - I was just bragging to my husband last night about how awesome I am at that! :D

    Firstly, I'd just like to say I'm extremely disappointed you didn't put a picture of Stephen King's 'IT' in the place of the clown. Mr. King has a lot to explain in terms of conditioning people to fear clowns.

    As far as phobias go, I'm afraid of the good ol' spider. It may have something to do with the fact I was bitten by a redback (Australia's black widow equivalent) when I was 6, and my teacher didn't believe me. Yep. Almost died. No, really - died. So my fear goes as far as calling my husband to come home from our friend's house to kill the spider on the OUTSIDE of our door. I'm not proud of myself.

    I want to leave you with this quote, from Phil Dunphy (Modern Family):"So yeah I am pretty much not afraid of anything ... Except clowns. Never shared that with the 'fam, so shhh! I do have an image to maintain. I am not really sure where the fear comes from, my mother says it's cause when I was a kid I found a dead clown in the woods. But who knows?"

    Still cracks me up a year later! :D

  2. ROFL!! Parallel parking? *shudders* Scares me, too...

    But in all honesty, my biggest phobia would be Justin Bieber's hair. I am 99.9% certain it is possessed. Every time he's on TV and whips his hair for the camera, a part of me dies.

    Oh, wait... that counts as a phobia, right? Right???

  3. Funny! We were just talking about the fear of clowns yesterday! Parallel parking IS something to be scared of!

  4. I'm not sure if I have a phobia about parallel parking, but I'd rather walk a long distance than do it (with the exception of when I park in front of my house). This is especially true after getting in an accident last year trying to pull out of a spot that two cars had boxed me into. I was pulling out, making sure not to hit them, when I van came along. The driver saw me pulling out, but didn't stop (she honked at least). I hit her van because there wasn't enough time for me to react. So now I panic if I have to parallel park, especially on a street that gets a lot of traffic.

    As for clowns. Stephen King anyone?

  5. You don't need a phobia to know that clowns are effin scary. Enough said.

    Just kidding, but seriously? Excellent analysis, nothing short of what I would expect from you. Well done Sarah, and go Lenny!

  6. Oh, I don't have a phobia, but I'm scared of balloons and roaches. I don't like anything that can startle me. Balloons pop and roaches come out of nowhere. Clowns are okay, though. :)

  7. Count on Lenny to ask a great question. I don't have a pathologic fear of clowns, but I really, REALLY don't like them.
    Great post!

  8. Spiders! And I passed it on to my daughters and granddaughters! I'm not proud of that.

  9. Thanks for commenting, everyone! I see many of you dislike clowns--it makes me wonder why they are so ubiquitous in child entertainment.

    Em--you bring up a very good point. Sometimes fears and anxiety are, to some extent, learned, often from a parent.

    Ciara--some people do have an exaggerated startle response; it's just the way they're nervous systems are wired--maybe that's you? It would make those things you mentioned particularly aversive.

    Jaime and Stina--I guess I dropped the ball--King's IT was terrifically scary.

    Amparo--does his hair actually impair you in some way, like, does it interfere with your ability to carry out your daily routine? Only then would you be diagnosed with beiberfolliculophobia.

  10. I'm phobic of math...I'm not kidding. I can't find my way through an equation to save my life. I think calculus did it to me. Now I use a calculator for simple addition cuz I can't handle actually thinking about numbers, LOL!

    Nice post!

  11. ohmygoodness! these comments are TOO FUNNY!!! great question from mr. lenny!

    and CLOWNS!!! AAAAHHHHH!!!!! i've always been afraid of clowns, and when i was a kid my grandma unwittingly signed me up for a week- long camp called "clown college!" i didn't want her to feel bad, so i went, and was freaking terrified! until i explained what was going on to the sweet mime teacher (who wasn't wearing any makeup) and he let me cut all the other classes and hang out in the mime studio the whole time!!! and kept the secret from my grandma for me! i love that man!

    but seriously, i do have anxiety problems, and my worst actual phobia is crowds. i work in a kitchen and we take our breaks in the cafeteria, and it's terrible! i have to wear earphones blaring music and draw to distract my mind or else i usually start to have a panic attack! eeks!

  12. First of all - that is one scary Santa Clause!
    Love this post! And, okay, truth time? I don't even know if there's a name for my phobia, knowing me it's something unique to myself. I'm afraid of walking on ice. *blushes* Kind of a problem for someone who grew up in Michigan!!

  13. hi miss sarah! big thanks for answering my question. wow really cool post. now i got some good stuff for my back story and thats gonna make my wip way better. for me i cant mostly think of stuff im scared of. i like creepy crawlies on me cause they tickle on my skin. i think mostly im scared of people i love dying.
    ...hugs from lenny

  14. Snakes. It has to be snakes. My sister shares the phobia, and so does my mother. I think Mom unintentionally instilled it in us. I used to believe it was an innate phobia, but then when my son was young there were so many venues that were trying to make snakes seem not scary to kids—from Sesame Street to Barnes & Noble (they had a giant live python there one day, being held up be several people, and you could walk up to it and touch it—yech!), that I got desensitized. A little. Now I don't get that awful outside-your-body and mind panic reaction to snakes so much. I just really, REALLY don't like them. I guess that projective identification thing that parents have with their kids can be a good thing sometimes!

  15. This is very interesting! I am a student of psychology right now and am enrolled in a Abnormal Child Psych class this semester. I find the clown part very interesting and how even babies respond to human faces! Thanks for a great read with lots of good info!

  16. Lisa--YES! Thank you! I thought he was really freaky looking.

    Laura--ha! I'm not a huge fan of math, myself. I'm all about language.

    Lenny--I'm glad it was helpful! Thanks for such a great question.

    Linda--fear of snakes is common, and makes total sense from an evolutionary perspective. And most of us live in places where we don't face down snakes on a daily basis.

    Jessica--I'm glad you enjoyed it! Abnormal psych was my favorite course in both undergrad and grad school. I love the case studies.

    Yahong Chi--I'm glad you think so. I find their pink eyes rather creepy, but I know some people adore them!

  17. This was fascinating. When I was young I wasn't afraid of clowns, but of ventriloquist dummies.

    This takes me back to my days of studying psychology....

  18. Bieberfolicullophobia sounds JUST about right. It impairs my thought process. I freeze up and can't speak for hours. I am a zombie.

    I am also going to refer to myself as suffering from this AWESOMELY named phobia from now on! Thanks, Sarah ;)

  19. Mine's calling people on the phone. I won't even call my family members or close friends unless I absolutely have to.

    I'm not sure if it's quite a phobia, but I also have an irrational fear of inviting people to go places with me, even people I know well.