Disgusting clusters: trypophobia as an overgeneralised disease avoidance response

Cogn Emot. 2018 Jun;32(4):729-741. doi: 10.1080/02699931.2017.1345721. Epub 2017 Jul 6.


Individuals with trypophobia have an aversion towards clusters of roughly circular shapes, such as those on a sponge or the bubbles on a cup of coffee. It is unclear why the condition exists, given the harmless nature of typical eliciting stimuli. 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. Consistent with this explanation, individuals with trypophobia, as well as comparison individuals, reported aversion towards disease-relevant cluster stimuli, but only the trypophobic group reported aversion towards objectively harmless cluster stimuli that had no relevance to disease. For both groups the level of aversion reported was predicted uniquely by a measure of disgust sensitivity. Scaled emotion ratings and open-ended responses revealed that the aversive response was predominantly based on the disease avoidance emotion, disgust. Many open-ended responses also described skin sensations (e.g. skin itching or skin crawling). These findings support the proposal that individuals with trypophobia primarily perceive cluster stimuli as cues to ectoparasites and skin-transmitted pathogens.

Keywords: Disgust; clusters; disease avoidance; ectoparasites; trypophobia.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Avoidance Learning*
  • Disgust*
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Generalization, Psychological*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Phobic Disorders / psychology*
  • Young Adult

Supplementary concepts

  • Phobia, Specific