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Trypophobia: Fear or Disgust at the Sight of Clusters of Holes

     

You may not know the term trypophobia, but a look at these images may tell you if it affects you. Trypophobia is a fear of clusters of small holes.

While it is not recognized in the official diagnostic manual (American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)) it has attracted attention since the term was first used in 2009 and has been the subject of some research. The DSM defines a phobia as a “marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation. The fear is out of proportion to the actual danger, it persists over time and it causes distress.

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When people who are affected by trypophobia look at images of clusters of small irregular holes, such as sponges, soap bubbles, coral or honeycombs, they describe feeling discomfort, disgust or fear. People also may get goosebumps, feel distressed, feel itchy or feel like their skin is crawling.

Some phobias may have a basis in a protective purpose, such as a fear of heights or spiders. But why a fear of clusters of holes? Though the research to date on the condition is limited, a couple of theories have emerged.

In a 2013 study published in Psychological Science, researchers suggested the fear related to an unconscious fear of dangerous organisms that have a similar appearance of holes, such as some snakes and scorpions. The researchers found 16 percent of the people in their sample had a disgust/fear reaction to images of these shapes.

A 2017 study in the journal Cognition and Emotion suggests another theory for why people feel revulsion or fear of clusters of holes. Researchers suggest the anxiety could relate to an evolutional response to parasites or infectious diseases that cause similar appearances of clusters of circles, such as smallpox and measles. It may be an “exaggerated and overgeneralized version of this normally adaptive response,” they suggest. Researchers found that people with and without trypophobia reacted with an aversion to disease-related images, but only people with trypophobia reacted to images of harmless things with clusters of holes. They found the reaction to be primarily disgust rather than fear, and many people also reported skin sensations, such as itching or skin crawling. Bubbles in a cup of coffee were one of the more common trypophobia triggers in the study.

In another study, published in Psychological Reports, researchers looked at the reactions of young children to various images and suggested that the reactions to the images of clusters of holes are a response to their visual characteristics rather than a nonconscious association with venomous animals. And they conclude “it is questionable whether it is justified to legitimize trypophobia.”

The research so far has not yet led to a consensus about the condition. But if the sight of bubbles in a coffee cup on an image of lotus flower makes you queasy and disgusted, you now have a name for those feelings.

Resources and References

  • Can W, Zhuoran Z, Zheng J. Is Trypophobia a Phobia? Psychological Reports. 2017 Apr;120(2):206-218.
  • Cole, GG, Wilkins, AJ. Fear of Holes. Psychological Science. 2013.
  • Gibbens, S. If These Photos Disgust You, You May Have Trypophobia. National Geographic. July 2017.
  • Kupfer, TR and Le, TD. Disgusting clusters: trypophobia as an overgeneralized disease avoidance response. Cognition and Emotion, 2017

     

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