Do You Have Coffee Bubble Phobia? Scientists Now Know Why


Trypophobia (fear of round holes) is no joke. Scientists think it was an evolutionary response to avoiding infectious diseases. Kevin Summers/Getty Images
Trypophobia (fear of round holes) is no joke. Scientists think it was an evolutionary response to avoiding infectious diseases. Kevin Summers/Getty Images

Has something as innocuous as a cluster of coffee bubbles ever given you the heebie-jeebies, even to the point where you might throw up? If so, you're not alone. People who suffer from trypophobia are repulsed by clustered holes/circular shapes. Not sure what that means? Envision the bubbles that float atop your morning coffee, a porous dishcloth or sponge or even air bubbles trapped in an otherwise tasty bite of chocolate.

University of Kent researchers recently uncovered more pieces to the trypophobia puzzle, with findings published in the journal Cognition and Emotion. The longtime school of thought regarding this particular phobia is that trypophobics react to an evolutionary aversion to poisonous animals, some of which feature clusters of circles in their markings. However, the new findings indicate that trypophobics are instead averse to parasitism and infectious disease that often have clusters of round shapes, such as measles, rubella, scarlet fever, smallpox, tics and scabies.

They came to this conclusion by utilizing two groups of participants – 255 trypophobics (recruited from support groups) and 182 without the phobia. Each group was asked to view 16 cluster images, with eight being disease-related and eight of regular objects (like holes drilled in a brick wall). The disease-related images were reported to be unpleasant by both groups, however only the trypophobic group found the non-disease images to be truly cringe-worthy.

"We suggest that aversion to clusters is an evolutionarily prepared response towards a class of stimuli that resemble cues to the presence of parasites and infectious disease. Trypophobia may be an exaggerated and overgeneralised version of this normally adaptive response," they write in the study.

Phobias are often fear-based in response, but the researchers added another component to the study to determine whether this is true for trypophobics. It's already known that disgust is what causes people to steer clear of infection scenarios (think of the last public toilet you used), so it makes sense that the hypothesis of trypophobia as an infection/parasite-averse issue would experience this emotion, rather than fear.

In fact, trypophobic respondents did report feelings of disgust, as well as related impulses, like the feeling that they might vomit. This occurred even when looking at the non-disease images. Many also said they experienced unpleasant sensations, like itchy or crawling skin, when looking at the images. "These findings support the proposal that individuals with trypophobia primarily perceive cluster stimuli as cues to ectoparasites and skin-transmitted pathogens," the researchers note in the study.