Have you ever experienced a chill down your spine when you saw a doll, wax figure, or other kind of inanimate object that has been created to look like a human? If so, you are not alone. Many people report having some feelings of discomfort around human-like figures, but recently people have begun to discuss this aversion and given it the name of automatonophobia. Automatonophobia, like many other labels for fears, has been developed by those who are not in the psychology field and use the Latin-based terms to describe what they experience. Psychologists, on the other hand, do not use these specific terms, but rather talk about specific phobias from a more general perspective. So, while the term automatonophobia may not be something that psychologists and mental health professionals specifically treat, the symptoms that come along with automatonophobia are definitely treatable.
No one really knows where specific phobias come from, and automatonophobia fears are no different. It is possible that horror movies and other media could exacerbate the fears that people have about these inanimate human-looking objects, but it is also possible that the fact that they are non-human and look so much like us could also be fear-inducing. Whatever the cause, people do report experiencing excessive fear and panic symptoms when one of these objects is present. This fear may not meet criteria for a full-blown phobia, though, as a phobia requires specific criteria to be met. For example, mental health professionals diagnose someone with a specific phobia when they have irrational and excessive fear about something that is not a current threat to their safety, when they avoid their feared situations or objects and when confronted with them they experience intense anxiety like a panic attack or other forms of distress. To meet criteria, this fear must have been present for 6 or more months and must also impact their social, occupational, and/or educational life and limit their ability to function normally throughout their life.
So, if someone is not in contact with human-looking objects throughout most of their life, this phobia may not be meet criteria to be a significant impact in their life. If, for example, they work in a wax museum or a clothing store where they have real life mannequins, this may impact their life to a significant degree where it could meet criteria for a phobia. Either way, if the symptoms of automatonophobia are causing you significant distress, seeking support from a mental health professional who treats phobias can help! Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the main treatment that is used to improve symptoms of specific phobias like automatonophobia. A therapist will help you understand how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all correlated and how your fears could be impacting your life. They will also use gradual exposure to help you retrain your brain’s current fear responses to get to a place where you are not as debilitated from the sight of a human-looking object. A trained professional will be able to help you confront and alleviate your fears and help you to learn coping skills to improve your quality of life.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events