The fear of animals is growing. And it’s not because animals have become more aggressive. The reason is another and it is found in us: we are getting further and further away from nature. Currently, around 56% of the world’s population lives in cities and the urban population is expected to more than double by 2050, by which time nearly 7 out of 10 people will live in urban areas. This change in our environment not only influences our way of life, habits and customs, but is also producing another much more curious side effect: an increase in biophobia.
What is biophobia? Its etymological and psychological meaning
The word biophobia comes from the Greek words “bios” (βίος), which means life, and “phobia” (φόβος), which means fear and horror. Therefore, it is an aversive response, such as fear and disgust, that some people show towards some stimuli, scenarios or natural situations. In the most extreme cases it can become an irrational fear that even triggers panic attacks.
In fact, those who suffer from biophobia are usually afraid of some species, as in the case of cynophobia (fear of dogs) or arachnophobia (fear of spiders). However, they go a step further and develop a general aversion to nature because they perceive it as dangerous, which ends up creating a need to protect themselves by resorting to technology and other human constructs to keep themselves safe from the elements of the natural world.
Of course, it is worth clarifying that fear of animals can be useful and, in fact, necessary in some circumstances. But biophobia leads to excessive distress and anxiety which, in turn, causes people to avoid interactions with nature.
Aversion to the natural world
Researchers at the University of Turku in Finland analyzed information searches on the Internet over the past two decades. They detected an increase in interest in biophobias, within which they included fear of animals. In contrast, the interest in general phobias remained constant throughout all the years.
Although this is not a traditional epidemiological analysis, it is quite likely that people looking for this type of information on the Internet are trying to understand what is happening to them, assess the magnitude of their problem and find mechanisms to deal with it.
After analyzing 25 specific phobias related to animals, they found that queries about 17 of them increased exponentially. Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, was the one that grew the most, followed by phobia of snakes (ophidophobia). However, the main searches also include aversion to microbes (mysophobia) and parasites (parasitophobia).
It was in the Anglo-Saxon countries (United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada) where was detected more concern for this type of phobias. The researchers found a clear association with the high percentages of urban population. They concluded that “There is a higher prevalence in countries with long-established urban populations.”
Researchers are convinced that widespread urbanization is leading to a loss of experience with the natural environment, which is increasing the prevalence of a completely irrational fear of animals. In fact, the study also detected irrational fears of flowers, probably because they attract insects that can bite us or even of the woods.
The vicious circle of biophobia
Fear of animals and biophobia seem to be more common in people who have not had a direct connection with nature, since they were probably born and raised in cities. Their urban lifestyle has made it very unlikely to have incidents with animals, which can generate this irrational fear.
These people would not be able to distinguish the specific threats posed by the natural environment from those that are quite unlikely to occur, so they may end up developing a generalized rejection of nature and a deep fear of animals.
Researchers from the University of Tokyo also analyzed this phenomenon and found that we are falling into what they called “the vicious circle of biophobia.” These generalized feelings of fear and aversion are the main drivers of avoidance behavior, which leads people to reject contact with nature.
In the long term, these behaviors contribute to reduce more and more the direct experience with nature. This extinction of the experience results in further disconnection with the natural, likely leading to increased biophobia and fear of animals, which is then perpetuated, reinforced, and more widely proliferated in society.
Obviously, breaking with nature has all kinds of consequences, not only for physical health but also for mental health and even for the ecosystem itself. “The fear and disgust experienced by people with these types of phobias not only affects their own well-being, but also how they perceive and support the preservation of nature in their environment,” said the researchers.
Correia, R. A. & Mammola, S. (2023) The searchscape of fear: A global analysis of internet search trends for biophobias. People and Nature; 10.1002: 3.10497.
Soga, M. et. Al. (2023) The vicious cycle of biophobia. Trends in Ecology and Evolution; 38(6): 512-520.