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The logic behind your irrational phobia

With their big red noses, silly wigs and colourful outfits, clowns are supposed to invoke laughter and smiles. But for many, the response is panic and irrational fear.

When Nicole, 25, talks about her fear of clowns, the terror is obvious: ‘I once bumped into a clown at a shopping centre and froze, screamed and burst into tears. I could only calm down once my sister had escorted me out of the shop,’ she recalls, grimacing.

But why fear something that’s meant to bring joy? Ask Nicole and she’ll tell you it’s the oversized shoes. However, science suggests phobias like Nicole’s have more to do with the individual than the object of the fear itself.

An evolutionary explanation

Deakin University Associate Professor Ross King trains clinical psychologists to help patients overcome their phobias. He says the fear of clowns, called Coulrophobia, is about their facial appearance.

‘Fear of clowns is a mask-based fear,’ he explains. ‘Evolution teaches us to read faces quickly, to determine whether something is friend or foe. So when expressions of a character’s make-up don’t match those the face is actually making, the human brain freaks out.’

The design of Stephen King’s infamous IT character, Pennywise the clown, was based on this principle: the bright red makeup of the face contrasted against the character’s murderous and demonic stare, producing its disturbing effect.


'Evolution teaches us to read faces quickly, to determine whether something is friend or foe. So when expressions of a character's make-up don’t match those the face is actually making, the human brain freaks out'

Associate Professor Ross King,
Deakin University

The origins of nightmares

A fear of clowns is often heavily influenced by how popular culture has represented them. Other phobias have seemingly no rational basis: selenophobia (fear of the moon), genuphobia (fear of knees) and sesquipedalophobia (fear of long words), to name a few. So how do we form these? Assoc. Prof. King says phobias are much closer to home that we might think. ‘There are broadly three ways people can develop these debilitating fears,’ Assoc. Prof. King explains.

  • Childhood trauma: ‘Those with fear of dogs, for example, often had a disturbing encounter as a child that has marked their understanding of the animal as a threat for the rest of their lives,’ he says.
  • Life-threatening situations: the spider’s bite, the jaws of sharks, the hunger of zombies — all these remind us how little control we have over threats that could end our lives.
  • Family influences: ‘Family plays a huge role in deciding our phobias. About 11% of the population have extremely strong phobias, and their relatives are three times more likely than others to share the same fear,’ Assoc. Prof. King says.

An innovative approach to a cure

What hope is there for people with irrational fears like Nicole? New innovations at Deakin University may provide the answer. Exposure therapy has long been credited as an effective method of dispelling fear. Scared of heights? This therapy has participants stand on the highest ledges to conquer it.

Deakin University has recently take this to the next level with VR immersion therapy. Participants enter digital spaces through VR headsets and confront their fears in a safe and accessible way, through harmless virtual confrontations with them. ‘By training in these digital spaces, people can change the way our brain is wired to respond to our phobias and strengthen new neural pathways that allow us to move forward,’ Assoc. Prof. King says.

Interested in understanding how our fears are created and conquered? Learn more through Deakin University’s psychology degrees.

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Ross King
Ross King

Associate Professor, Faculty of Health, Deakin University
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