We're Not in the Stone Age Anymore but We're Still Scared Stiff: 7 Phobias of the Modern Age

02/11/2014 01:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2014

Many phobias--those irrational, excessive fears that send us into trembling pools of dread--are rooted in evolutionary history. It's no coincidence that many specific phobias fall into one of four categories: fear of blood or injury, fear of insects and animals, fear of the natural environment, and fear of dangerous situations. These are all fears that helped our ancestors survive. If you were a caveman and saw a huge snake slithering toward you, you probably didn't stop to consider whether it was deadly or not. You just grabbed your club and prepared to either clobber the snake or run like hell.

Phobias are rooted in that primitive fight or flight response. When you see or hear something scary--a hissing snake, say--that information flies directly to the amygdalae, two little almond-shaped nuggets on either side of the brain. Trigger the amygdalae, and terror kicks in. Danger, danger, Will Robinson! But that same information also travels to the prefrontal cortex, which then forwards it to the amygdalae. The message might be, "Relax, silly, it's only a garter snake," or "You were totally right. It's a coral snake!" Scientists have found that the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdalae is weaker in people with anxiety disorders, including phobias. The amygdalae just don't get the memo that there's nothing to fear.

Snakes aren't much of a threat to most people these days, although plenty of people still have ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). But we live in an age of anxiety, and modern society has provided us with plenty of other situations, things, and places to trigger our phobias. Here are seven modern phobias that never plagued The Flintstones.

  • Coulrophobia (Fear of clowns)
    Clowns, with their goofy wigs, crazy makeup, and outlandish costumes are supposed to make us laugh, right? But a surprising number of people, especially children, are terrified of clowns. Why? We are accustomed to reading facial expressions to understand the feelings and attitudes of others. But the clown wears a mask, a cartoonish painted-on smile or frown that almost seems designed to hide his or her intentions. To enjoy a clown’s performance takes trust: We must believe that, despite the clown’s wild appearance and violent-seeming actions, he or she will never actually hurt us.
  • Kinemortophobia (Fear of zombies)
    Renee Keith via Getty Images
    Kinemortophobia, or the fear of zombies, may seem like a no-brainer (couldn’t help it—sorry!), if something of a joke. They’re dead! They want to eat your brains! Kinemortophobia is no joke, however, although it’s more accurately described as the fear of becoming a zombie. The Haitian Vodou religion holds that the soul of a person who dies an unnatural death (by murder, for example) must linger at the grave until the gods give it permission to continue on its journey. This vulnerable soul may be snatched up by a sorcerer and locked in a bottle; its undead body can then be used as slave labor.
  • Koumpounophobia (Fear of buttons)
    Debby Lewis-Harrison via Getty Images
    Koumpounophobia is rare, but it does exist. Some koumpounophobes fear that buttons are dirty (related to a general fear of germs); others are freaked out by their textures, especially if they’re plastic. As with many phobias, koumpounophobia may be linked to a traumatic childhood experience. One British bartender, whose aspirations of becoming an accountant were dashed by his intense fear of buttons, said that he was traumatized when a bucket of buttons fell on him at the age of two. Author Neil Gaiman may have created a whole new generation of koumpounophobes with his 2002 horror-fantasy novella Coraline, in which a little girl discovers a nightmarish parallel world in which everyone’s eyes are replaced by…buttons.
  • Nomophobia (Fear of being out of mobile phone contact)
    Bloom Productions via Getty Images
    The newest phobia may be nomophobia, a.k.a. cell-phone addiction. Nomo is short for “no-mobile”—as when people can’t find their cell phones, when their batteries run out, or they have no network coverage. The “phobia” here is perhaps exaggerated, but we can still certainly recognize the symptoms. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are the most likely to suffer from this affliction, with 77 percent admitting to being unable to part with their phones for even a few minutes. Another survey found that 22 percent of people would rather give up their toothbrush than their cellphone for an entire week.
  • Obesophobia (Fear of becoming fat)
    Blend Images/John Fedele via Getty Images
    It’s no wonder that obesophobia is on the rise these days. Fat-shaming is rampant, most models are rail-thin, and photos of celebrities are routinely photoshopped to shave off a few pounds. People with obesophobia often find that their desire to stay thin or lose weight spirals out of control, leading to life-threatening disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Let’s give it up for Adele, who said, “I enjoy being me; I always have done. I’ve seen people where it rules their lives, you know, who want to be thinner or have bigger boobs, and how it wears them down. And I just don’t want that in my life.”
  • Pediophobia (Fear of dolls)
    Robin Hill via Getty Images
    Dolls are beloved childhood companions—unless you have pediophobia. Nearly everyone has had the anxious feeling of being creeped out by a particular doll (think: Chucky), but pediophobes have that same uncanny experience with all dolls. The fear also often extends to other lifeless human figures, like ventriloquists’ dummies, puppets, and mannequins. For many people, pediophobia (not to be confused with “pedophobia,” or the fear of children) begins with a traumatic childhood experience. Kids often act out their dreams and fantasies by imagining their dolls coming to life. It’s all fun and games, until Dolly starts giving you the stink-eye. What would happen if a doll embodying what we feared most came to life?
  • Radiophobia (Fear of radiation)
    Jeffrey Coolidge via Getty Images
    Radiophobia takes a genuine fear and concern—that radiation in large doses can be deadly—and extends it to all situations. Ever since WWII, the idea that radiation creates monstrous mutations has made its way into countless comic books, TV shows, movies—and the popular imagination. We fear things we don’t understand, and radiation certainly plays into that anxiety about the unknown. If our knowledge of radiation is confined to genuinely horrific events like the Fukushima disaster or fictional movie mutants, then the idea of even a small, limited dose of radiation can be terrifying. No matter that the X-ray technician says it’s safe; the amygdala keeps reminding us of Godzilla.