Irrational Fears (and Aversions)

19 February 2014

Last week’s #CuriousConversations was one of our most responded to yet. Rob Bidder had already drawn the first batch of your irrational fears but so many of you got in touch that we carried the conversation on for another week. Richard Firth-Godbehere was particularly interested in some of your submissions and discusses the sometimes abstract causes of aversion.

Wellcome Collection recently kicked off one of its #CuriousConversations with a simple question: “what are your irrational fears?” The answers ranged from one of the most common phobias of all (spiders) to the more unusual (balloons or, in my case, wooden objects in my mouth). Throughout all of these responses, a few predominant aversive emotions shone through that are often found tied to irrational fears: anxiety, hatred, horror and disgust.

This observation is nothing new. In the thirteenth century, St Thomas Aquinas said that the passion of aversive feelings in opposition to desiring “has no name”. The best description he could think of was “aversion or abomination”. Here are a few examples of the #CuriousConversations responses:

In the 1970s, philosopher Aurel Kolnai noticed that these aversive emotions have an asymmetry with desiring emotions in that the causes of aversions are more abstract than the causes of desires. Whereas the cause of a love of balloons is usually clear and rational (such as a happy memory or aesthetic pleasure), the reason to fear them is irrational and harder to grasp. What’s more, these irrational aversions are not focused only on their central object; they also affect related behaviour.

By way of an example, one of the tweets particularly caught my attention. @charlottelb tweeted:

This phobia is the reason I became interested in aversive emotions in the first place. My wife has lived with Emetophobia for some time (now controlled through CBT) and her phobia was not fear alone: it was a mixture of aversive emotions. The most powerful was the combination of two whose links to phobias are becoming increasingly well documented: anxiety and disgust. Vomiting is an abomination to almost everybody as it combines many causes of disgust, such as the ejection of what is supposed to be contained within the body the wrong way through a bodily orifice of a substance that is putrefied; foul tasting; and able to remind us of our animal existence and mortality.

Rob Bidder’s #CuriousConversations illustration, Irrationals Fears: First Batch.
Rob Bidder’s #CuriousConversations illustration, Irrationals Fears: First Batch.

The phobia stems, as do many phobias, from contamination anxiety. Horrifying and disgusting is the idea that another’s vomit may contaminate the self through either contact or sympathetic magic by hearing or seeing them vomit. The idea that the self has become contaminated, and might contaminate others, is terrifying and disgusting. Many Emetaphobes have such strong feelings of aversion that they obsessively clean, check and recheck food to make sure it is cooked, avoid eating out, and so on.

These mixed aversive emotions can trigger the avoidance of anything related to the phobia, real or imagined. As a result, phobias can rule your life, as might my dislike for wood on the roof of my mouth. Thankfully, my love of Magnum ice-creams is more powerful.

There’s still time to submit your own irrational fears. Send us a tweet or comment below.

Richard is a Wellcome Trust supported Doctoral Candidate in the Medical Humanities at the Centre for the History of Emotions, Queen Mary, University of London. He is researching how the passions of aversion were related to medicine in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. Find out more on his blog.