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The University of Sussex

 21 January 2002 

Sussex psychologists study what causes children's fears and phobias

Dr Andy Field, lecturer in psychology and research fellow Robin Banerjee at the University of Sussex have just won a three-year grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to investigate how fears and phobias are formed.

"A phobia is a clinically diagnosed level of fear about a particular thing or situation," says Dr Field. "You might be scared of spiders, but if you can't be in the same room as one then you have a phobia and not just a fear."

Their research will focus on children and investigate how information given to them affects their attitudes towards animals and social situations. This is obviously difficult to do with such a sensitive subject group as children, but Dr Field has been involved in developing techniques to study the development of fears and phobias that do not risk traumatising the children.

Six- to eight-year-olds are particularly sensitive to developing fears of certain animals. By using pictures of three different obscure Australian marsupials (the Quokka, Quoll and Cuscus), which British children will not have encountered or heard about before, the researchers can eliminate any preconceptions that the children might hold about certain animals.

By telling the children stories about these animals that are either positive, negative or neutral, and then later testing their perceptions of the animals, the influence of information on the development of fears can be investigated. Negative information (e.g. 'dogs will bite you') has much more of an effect than positive information (e.g. 'dogs are loveable') on the development of fear beliefs. The source of information - whether it comes from an adult or a peer - is also crucial, with negative information being more effective when delivered by an adult than by a peer.

Ten- to twelve-year-olds begin to become concerned with social situations such as giving a talk, eating in public and talking in small groups. Again, the researchers will tell stories about certain situations and assess the results.

"The final stage is to start thinking about linking a change in belief to how an actual fear develops," says Dr Field. "If you expect something bad to happen, for example when you have to talk in public, and then something bad does indeed happen, it speeds up how fast you might develop a fear of public speaking."

 Notes for editors 

For further information, please contact Peter Simmons or Jacqui Bealing, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 877456, email or

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