Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Shedding some light on fear of the dark

In the blog at his No Sleepless Nights web site on February 12, 2018 Ethan Green posted about Fear of the Dark Phobia: Is it keeping you awake?

But a fear of the dark is way less severe than a phobia of the dark, which psychologists could classify as a specific phobia. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, 2013 (DSM IV) the seven diagnostic criteria for a specific phobia are:

1] Marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation (e.g. flying, heights, animals, receiving an injection, seeing blood). Note: In children, the fear or anxiety may be expressed by crying, tantrums, freezing, or clinging.

2] The phobic object or situation almost always provokes immediate fear or anxiety.

3] The phobic object or situation is actively avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.

4] The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual danger posed by the specific object or situation and to the sociocultural context.

5] The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting 6 months or more.

6] The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

7] The disturbance is not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder, including fear, anxiety, and avoidance of situations associated with panic-like symptoms or other incapacitating symptoms (as in agoraphobia): objects or situation related to obsessions (as in obsessive-compulsive disorder); reminders of traumatic events (as in posttraumatic stress disorder); separation from home or attachment figures (as in separation anxiety disorder); or social situations (as in social anxiety disorder).

Ethan referred to phobia of the dark as being nyctophobia. Then he stated that:
“It’s hard to find reliable statistics about nyctophobia. In 2017, a poll of 2000 British adults by Bensons for Beds revealed that 17% regularly sleep with a light on. And 20% do some bedtime checks, like closing wardrobe doors and making sure there’s nothing lurking under the bed. According to the Statistic Brain website, 11% of the US population suffers from a fear of the dark phobia.”

Back on December 7, 2014 I blogged about how Statistic Brain is just a statistical medicine show. Their fear statistics web page once claimed that the percentages came from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). I contacted NIMH and found that was a lie. So the 11% is baseless web crap that should be ignored.

I don’t know of any recent statistics about nycyophobia. Back on August 22, 2012 I blogged about Avoiding blind alleys in research and cautioned that using a phobia name was likely to put on blinders, and send you down a blind alley. But this blog has lots of posts about national surveys on the fear of public speaking - which also include many other fears. In the past four years there have been five about fear of the dark or darkness at four levels, including Very Afraid.

In 2014 YouGov surveyed adults in both the U.S. and Britain about fear of darkness. In 2014 and 2015 the Chapman Survey of American Fears included a question on fear of the dark. In 2017 an Insights West survey of Canadians included fear of darkness. Results from all five surveys are shown above in a bar chart. (Click on it to see a larger, clearer view). At most 6% were very afraid.

How about gender effects on fear of the dark? Three surveys included gender (and also grouping by age and geographical region). Results for gender are shown above. For both the U.S. and Britain YouGov found 5% of females but only 2% of males were Very Afraid.

Another way of summarizing the results of a fear survey is via a Fear Score. On November 10, 2015 I blogged about how a YouGov survey done in 2014 found U.S. adults were less than A Little Afraid of public speaking. The fear score is calculated as follows:

Fear Score = [ 1x(% for Not Afraid at All) 
                      +  2x(% for Not Really Afraid)
                     + 3x(% for A Little Afraid) 

                     + 4x(% for Very Afraid)]/100

Fear Scores for all the surveys are shown above in a bar chart. In the YouGov U.S. survey results for fear of darkness were 1.63 for males, 1.97 for females, and 1.84 for adults – all of which are below the 2.0 (second lowest level) for Not Really Afraid. Fear Scores from the other four surveys were even lower.  

One section of Ethan Green’s blog post was titled Nyctophobia a major cause for adult insomnia? He referenced a Ryerson University study that was discussed at a conference in 2012 and referred to in Science Daily (and by Time and CBC News). Ethan reported:
 “In the study, 93 college students were given 2 questionnaires: the insomnia severity index and a fear of the dark questionnaire. They discovered that nearly half admitted to having a fear of the dark phobia. Furthermore, 46% of poor sleepers admitted this compared to 26% of good sleepers.”

I looked further and found the magazine article from that study by Colleen E. Carney et al titled Are poor sleepers afraid of the dark? A preliminary investigation. (Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, March 2014). The method section notes that 79% of the participants were women – not a very gender balanced sample. For this study they made up their own 10-item Dark Discomfort Questionaire, which struck me as very curious, considering there are other older, well-known tools like Geer’s 51-question 1965 Fear Survey Schedule II which include a question about Dark Places. I blogged about it on October 10, 2012 in a post titled In a 1965 study of university students, fear of public speaking ranked sixth for men and seventh for women. Fear of dark places was ranked 34th by women and 38th by men. (In this blog there are 27 posts under the fear survey schedule label.
In the discussion section the authors said they had looked at fear NOT phobia:

“It is also important to note that fear of the dark was assessed with a single question, which assessed fear in terms of levels of discomfort, and it is unknown whether this single item would reflect a clinically significant level of fear, for example characteristic of a phobia.”

It is interesting to note that the last three Chapman surveys included this question (not discussed further by them): During the past two weeks, how often have you experienced trouble sleeping? with possible answers of Nearly every day, More than half the days, Sometimes, or Not at all. Survey percentages are shown above in a bar chart.

The painting of Diogenes is from Wikimedia Commons.  

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