How common are phobias? - Phobias

Anxiety: A Very Short Introduction - Daniel Freeman, Jason Freeman 2012

How common are phobias?

Most people are prey to unreasonable or exaggerated fears at some point in their lives. Many surveys have been done on the topic, with the proportion of individuals reporting such fears typically somewhere around 50—60%.

Unsurprisingly, the number of people whose fears are sufficiently debilitating to qualify as phobias is smaller, though still substantial. The US National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCSR), for example, interviewed a representative national sample of over 9,000 adults from 2001 to 2003: 8.7% of those individuals had suffered from a phobia in the previous 12 months. Other surveys have produced similar results.

Phobias seem to be common in young people. A US survey of more than 10,000 teenagers found that almost 1 in 5 reported having suffered from a phobia at some point in their life.

It’s uncommon to suffer from just one phobia. For instance, the NCSR’s forerunner, the 1994 National Comorbidity Survey, found that, of the 22.7% of people reporting at least one phobia during their life, more than three-quarters had experienced two or more.

Most phobias begin early in life. For animal and blood-injection-injury phobias, that typically means childhood; for other phobias, onset is usually during adolescence. On average, it takes nine years for a fear to develop into a fully fledged phobia.

One striking finding is that females are more than twice as likely to suffer from phobias as males. Why is this? One theory is that men are less likely to admit they are afraid.

An experiment by Kent Pierce and Dwight Kirkpatrick provided a telling illustration of this tendency. A group of college students were asked how much they feared a number of objects and situations, including rats, mice, and rollercoaster rides.

The researchers then informed the participants that they were going to be shown a video of these objects and situations, after which they would be asked to retake the fear questionnaire. During the video, the participants’ heart rate would be monitored — a procedure that the researchers implied would allow them to measure just how scared the students really were. Believing — erroneously, as it turned out — that their responses could be verified, the male students admitted to greater levels of fear on the second questionnaire; the women’s scores remained unchanged.

Even allowing for the fact that the men in Pierce and Kirkpatrick’s study tended to under-report the extent of their fears, their scores were still significantly lower than those of the women. Exactly why women are more prone to fears and phobias is unclear. There is some evidence that women are genetically more vulnerable to fear. But environmental factors doubtless play a part too. In many cultures, for example, it is less acceptable for a man to display fear than it is for a woman. So while girls may be indulged in their fears, boys are taught to overcome them.