What Causes Triskaidekaphobia?

Q: What’s up with triskaidekaphobia? Is it contagious? Why would somebody dream up such a silly disease? – Mathgirl

Dear Mathgirl,

Rumor has it that fear of the number 13 was started by Pythagoras, who thought the number had special powers. He told two friends, then they told two friends, then… well, you know how rumors get started.

Cheap, tawdry phobias like this one give fear a bad rap. Fear is not a disease. (Even though it’s possible to take a pill and make it go away.) (For a little while, at least.) Fear is an adaptive emotion that helps us survive. And it’s a darned useful one, at that. Just ask anyone who has outrun a sex-crazed congressman and lived to tell about it.

Like many human processes, fear can be experienced to a degree that exceeds its own usefulness. It can even become quite painful. Maybe that’s what gives us the irresistible temptation to label any “irrational fear” as a unique medical condition.

But personally, I don’t believe in the concept of irrational fear. All fear serves a function, even when the level of aversion is so strong that it outweighs its own usefulness and interferes with life. When a person’s history shows that some piece of the world is too dangerous to approach, a good human mind will protect its owner at all costs – even to the point of complete avoidance.

Howard Hughes is an example of someone who suffered dramatically due to his avoidance of people, disease, and other dangers of the world. Some people think he was crazy. But if the job of a human mind is to protect its owner, Hughes’ mind was doing a helluva job.

Fear-based avoidance can be self perpetuating because it leads to a perceived prevention of pain (which reinforces the fear) and it is related to good feelings such as safety (which doubly reinforces it). Consider the person who feels afraid to interact with other people. By staying home, she avoids threatening interactions, and she also experiences warm-fuzzies related to the comfort of her own cozy little castle. Her “irrational” fear, while troublesome, is flawlessly logical from a mind’s point of view.

To make matters worse, the failure to learn how to manage fears can last for years – even a lifetime – fueled by past failures and imagined disasters. Making the decision to address a fear can be as difficult as facing the fear itself.

Twice the Benefit for the Price of One Fear

Specific fears such as triskaidekaphobia probably serve a similar function for some folks, though we might more accurately view this as superstition that serves to make the world more predictable. Human minds like predictability, even if they must sometimes settle for imagined predictability. Fear-based behavior toward the number 13 provides the self-perpetuating gratification of avoiding danger, as well as the perceived reward of safety.

Such fear also comes with a cost. Responding to fear through avoidance makes the world slightly smaller. A person may find herself making sacrifices to avoid the number 13 (or whatever the feared situation). As long as these sacrifices do not interfere with the person’s life, and they provide good feelings, then all is well. But when that fear-based behavior begins to impede life and the person finds herself making unwanted sacrifices, then it may be time to call on someone like the Iron Shrink who can help to restore balance.

Just as a fear serves a function, so does naming fears. It gives one an air of authority to be the first to discover a new condition, and I’m not above generating cheap resume padding. Here are my contributions to the Big Book of Functional Fears:

  • Linguamechamashaphobia: Fear of getting one’s tongue caught while licking frosting off the beaters.
  • Embedaskivvyphobia: Fear of receiving a wedgie from old rivals while attending one’s 20-year high school reunion.
  • Feelafecalphobia: Fear of contacting the waste matter of one’s dog while policing after him with a plastic bag.