Tailor-Made Terror: The Mystery of Koumpounophobia, the Fear of Buttons

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Paul is an IT consultant who lives in Georgia. Some years ago, he agreed to meet a woman that a friend of his thought would be perfect for him. They went on a date. She was nice, but Paul told his friend it wasn’t going to work out because she had been wearing a shirt with buttons. Lots of buttons.

Since childhood, Paul has had an aversion to buttons. When his parents took him to church and he was forced to wear a dress shirt, he insisted on covering the line of buttons with a necktie so he wouldn’t have to see them. As an adult, he leaves his work attire buttoned almost to the top, leaving just one undone so he can pull it over his head. That way, he won’t have to touch the rest of them. “The ones I hate most are the four-hole, iridescent buttons,” Paul tells Mental Floss, describing one of the most common types of plastic clothing buttons. “But they are all degrees of disgusting.”

Paul suffers from koumpounophobia, or a fear of buttons—a phobia so rare that only one clinical case has ever been documented in psychiatric literature. Unlike more common ailments like a fear of snakes or heights, those afflicted with koumpounophobia find it difficult to practice avoidance. Buttons are everywhere. On clothes. In stores. Stuffed in closets. Lurking in laundry hampers. If sufferers can somehow avoid wearing them, they’re still distressed by the sight of them on others. A hug from a button-wearer can provoke as much anxiety as the feeling of a spider crawling up an arachnophobe’s leg.

Despite his apprehensions, Paul agreed to see his date again. But before their relationship could continue, he had to sit her down and explain his affliction. “This is weird,” he told her, “but if we keep seeing each other, you need to make an effort not to wear buttons.”

 
 

Koumpounophobia had its moment in the spotlight in 2007, when The Wall Street Journal intimated that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs hated buttons. The evidence, according to the paper, included Apple’s debut iPhone, a touchscreen-based device that would revolutionize telecommunications, as well as Jobs’s wardrobe, which consisted mostly of black turtlenecks. While not a disclosed phobia, the button-free preferences of Jobs (who died in 2011) has led some observers to speculate his aversion might have led to radical tech innovations that changed the course of history.

For most koumpounophobes—which may number just one in 75,000 people, a fraction of the 9 percent of Americans who suffer from specific phobias—their disgust for buttons simply changes the course of their day. They avoid looking at, touching, wearing, or thinking about buttons, an aversion that idles at the intersection between terror and repulsion, according to Wendy Silverman, Ph.D., the director of the Yale Child Study Center Program for Anxiety Disorders.

Buttons are seen on a sleeve in close-up
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"There is linkage between phobia, fear, and disgust," Silverman tells Mental Floss. What people think of as fear may instead be a strong loathing. Either way, it results in avoidance behavior. In 2002, Silverman co-authored and published the only clinical paper [PDF] chronicling a case study of an adolescent presenting with a button avoidance.

At the time, Silverman was in clinical practice at Miami's Florida International University and agreed to see a mother and her 9-year-old son. The mother said that her son had struggled with his school uniform, which included a button-up shirt. He refused to touch the buttons or look at them. He didn’t like the smell of them.

“He had the feeling they were just gross,” Silverman says. “Because of the uniform, he was forced into enduring them. They caused extreme distress.”

Silverman learned of a telling incident that happened when the child was 5 years old: During a kindergarten art lesson, the boy had run out of buttons to glue to his poster board. Walking up to a giant bowl of them on the teacher’s desk, he slipped. The bowl tipped over, scattering buttons everywhere.

It’s easy to imagine the embarrassment of the boy, eyed by his classmates after sending the stockpile of buttons flying. But Silverman says that such inciting incidents are hard to come by. For most phobics, they can’t always remember that pivotal moment when an innocuous object became a threat. Memory is unreliable, and therapists don't typically find that learning the origin of a fear aids in helping to treat it. “Typically, it’s not common for kids presenting with a phobia to have experienced a direct event like this. Many times, it’s just them observing someone else or hearing about it.”

A red button appears on red fabric
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According to Silverman, the child had a hierarchy of distaste. Small plastic buttons provoked the strongest reaction; large, jean-style brass buttons were only minimally troubling. The Jobs theory aside, electronic-style buttons—like the kind used on computer keyboards—don’t seem to be a trigger. “It’s a gradient common in phobias,” she says. “If you have a fear of dogs and see a poodle, that’s different from seeing a big dog that’s not on a leash.”

Silverman ruled out obsessive-compulsive disorder in the child’s case, as he didn’t claim any repetitive or persistent thoughts about buttons, and decided to initiate exposure therapy by slowly introducing him to physical interactions with buttons, a common approach for phobias. When he handled them, he received positive enforcement from his mother. Yet his anxiety increased: All he wanted to do was prevent anyone from assailing him with buttons. For years, that was his coping mechanism.

“Avoidance behavior, over time, just makes it worse,” Silverman says. “The mother was buying special clothes and he was allowed to avoid them.” Left untreated, koumpounophobes can come to find that buttons will begin to exact increasing influence over their lives.

 
 

In order to get Ronald, almost 4, to wear buttons, his mother Viv tries to make a game out of it, buttoning her own shirt as he buttons his. Sometimes this works; other times, he becomes so distressed that she gives up. What concerns her most is that Ronald spends his time in preschool being extremely wary of children wearing buttons.

“The way we see it happening is that he just avoids any child with buttons and has a tendency to play by himself at school,” Viv tells Mental Floss. “The teachers probably just don't see the pattern because who would think to tie whether he likes a kid or not to what the kid is wearing? They probably think of him as a bit antisocial.”

A man buttons his shirt
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To hate buttons is to avoid people wearing buttons, something that can have significant social implications for both children and adults. Paul is, in a sense, one possible future for Ronald. His phobia dictates his moods, his relationships, and his stress levels. Forced to wear buttons, he likens it to someone with anxiety over flying. “You sit on the plane but you don’t like it,” Paul says. “It’s not comfortable. You’re aware of it the whole time.”

He has little influence over how others wield buttons. If a person wearing buttons comes in for a hug, he’ll perform only the bare minimum in return. “A side hug, maybe,” he says. His wife—the same woman to whom he admitted his phobia 10 years ago—will sometimes put a button in her mouth to annoy him. People find his discomfort over fasteners funny.

“I’ve had people at work leave buttons on my desk," Paul says. "I don’t like it. A box of random buttons is gross. It’s not there for any reason.” Gratuitous shots of buttons in movies or on television annoy him. “It’s like, why are you showing this in close-up?” If he's forced to touch a button, he’ll wash his hands. “It’s like, ‘I gotta get this button off of me.’”

Contamination might be one possible explanation for why button phobics react the way they do. Paul remembers chewing on his collar as a child. Maybe, he says, a foul-tasting button made him regard all buttons as something off-putting and dirty. It’s enough to provoke unease, but not quite on the level of phobias that can cripple a person’s activities.

“Most people with a button phobia don’t meet diagnostic criteria in terms of distress and disability,” Graham Davey, a professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, tells Mental Floss. "So in this sense, button phobia will usually be only a mild phobia and can usually be addressed by simply cutting off all the buttons from clothing before wearing those clothes … But I have known people whose discomfort with buttons is generally down to feeling constricted by them, so it may represent a very unusual form of claustrophobia.”

 
 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which suggests modulating thought processes away from the unhelpful behavior, is one way to address an avoidance of buttons. Exposure therapy, a common technique used in CBT, subjects patients to an escalating series of encounters with the thing that causes them distress. If someone has a fear of flying, they might start with looking at a picture of an airplane before sitting in a grounded aircraft and then, ultimately, taking off. In the case of the 9-year-old boy in Miami who was brought in hating buttons, exposure wasn't enough.

"He was still having distress reactions," Silverman says. So she switched to focusing on the disgust portion of his aversion. She instructed him to imagine buttons falling on him and to consider how they felt, looked, and smelled, forcing him to analyze his own feelings and regard them as disproportionate to the objective harmlessness of the objects. His distress, measured verbally by the boy on a one-to-nine scale, began to decrease.

A pile of buttons
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At follow-up at six and 12 months, the boy reported only minimal discomfort when exposed to buttons. The clear plastic kind, once the most troubling, were worn without incident on a daily basis.

While Viv has not pursued professional help for her son, she has shown Ronald videos on button-making that didn’t seem to produce much anxiety. They also made buttons out of Play-Doh. “Maybe we’ll try again,” she says, “after we get through potty training.”

A sense of embarrassment can often stifle such attempts to cope. Paul has seen a therapist for general issues relating to looming middle age but has avoided the button topic, fearing it will sound ridiculous. Sufferers find it easier to practice avoidance, customizing tasks in an effort to reduce exposure. While cognitive therapy and exposure may work, the sufferer has to want it to work.

Paul has learned to iron shirts that are already buttoned up so he doesn’t have to touch them. More distressing than that is the fact his young daughter is beginning to exhibit signs of koumpounophobia. “She’s started to have the same aversion to buttons which has caused a bit of concern for me,” he says. “I’m trying to introduce buttons into her world so she doesn’t have to deal with the constraint.” But Paul also admits he’s most comfortable when his family’s closets are button-free, or close to it. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hate buttons wholeheartedly,” he says.

12 Doomed Facts About the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
'Twas the witch of November come stealin'
-Gordon Lightfoot, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976) 

On November 10, 1975, two ships made their way in tandem across the stormy waters of Lake Superior. One was the Arthur M. Anderson, led by Captain Jesse Cooper. The other, captained by Ernest McSorley, was the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.

The ship was last seen on radar around 7:15 p.m. All 29 men on board were lost with it, and today, more than four decades after the most famous shipwreck in Great Lakes history, the cause is still a mystery.

Here's what we do know about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, and what happened to it that fateful day:

1. IT WAS THE LARGEST SHIP ON THE GREAT LAKES.

The large cargo vessels that roamed the five Great Lakes were known as lakers, and the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was, at the time, the biggest ever built. It was constructed as a “maximum sized” bulk carrier and spanned 729 feet—the first laker to reach that length—sat 39 feet high with a width of 75 feet, and weighed more than 13,000 tons without cargo. It was christened on June 8, 1958, and made its first voyage on September 24 the same year. 

2. THE SHIP WAS OWNED BY AN INSURANCE COMPANY.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse, Michigan, was contracted to build the ship in 1957 by Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, which had invested heavily in the iron and minerals industries. With the commissioning of the Fitzgerald, Northwestern Mutual became the first American insurance company to build its own ship—at a cost of $8.4 million, the most expensive price tag for a freighter at the time, according to Michael Schumacher’s The Mighty Fitz.

3. IT WAS NAMED AFTER THE HEAD OF THE COMPANY.

The chairman of Northwestern Mutual had a long history with the Great Lakes shipping industry. Edmund Fitzgerald’s grandfather captained a ship on the lakes, his father owned a shipyard, and they both had ships named after them. After construction of the Fitzgerald was complete, Northwestern Mutual placed its charter with the Columbia Transportation Division of Oglebay Norton Company, based in Cleveland. 

4. THE SHIP'S MAIN JOB WAS HAULING IRON ORE. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most lakers traversing the Great Lakes and the connecting waterways carry massive amounts of raw materials such as rock, salt, and grain. The Edmund Fitzgerald generally loaded taconite, low-grade iron ore, from mines on the shores of Minnesota and transported the pellets to steel mills near Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.

5. "THE FITZ" WAS WELL-KNOWN EVEN BEFORE IT SANK.

Its impressive size made the ship popular with boat-watchers, and over the years it garnered many nicknames, including “The Queen of the Great Lakes,” “The Toledo Express,” and the unfortunate “Titanic of the Great Lakes.” Crowds would watch as the massive freighter moved through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The “Soo” Locks, which connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron, allowed the Fitz to reach ports on the lower Great Lakes.

6. THE SHIP RAN INTO A DEADLY STORM ON LAKE SUPERIOR.

November is a brutal month on the Great Lakes. Frequent storms and hurricane-force winds can batter even the toughest-built freighters. On November 9, the Fitz was loaded with 26,116 tons of iron ore pellets at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock in Superior, Wisconsin. It left at 2:30 p.m. A second ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, sailed 10-15 miles behind the Fitzgerald as a precaution, and the two ships remained in radio contact until just after 7 p.m. on November 10.

Gale warnings had been issued by the National Weather Service the previous day, and by the morning of the 10th, the advisories had been upgraded to an official storm warning. 

As swells reached 35 feet and winds raged at nearly 100 mph, the ship contacted Coast Guard officials in Sault Ste. Marie and said they were taking on water. Later, a blizzard obscured the Fitz on the Anderson’s radar, but Captain Ernest McSorley, who was on his final voyage before retirement, assured a crew member on the Anderson at 7:10 p.m. that, “We are holding our own.” It was the last anyone heard from McSorley or the Fitzgerald.

7. NO DISTRESS SIGNAL WAS SENT.

After that, there was nothing on the radar. No radio contact. The ship was approximately 15 miles north of Whitefish Point when it seemingly vanished. Captain Cooper, on the Anderson, was in contact with the Coast Guard and made it to Whitefish Point sometime after 8 p.m. with no sign or word from the Fitzgerald. Later, the Anderson made its way back into the storm to search for the ship, but found only a pair of lifeboats and debris. 

8. ALL 29 CREW MEMBERS DIED. 

Along with the captain, the other crew members of the Fitzgerald included porters, oilers, engineers, maintenance workers, cooks, watchmen, deck hands, and wheelsmen. Most crew members were from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota.

9. THERE IS STILL NO DEFINITIVE EXPLANATION FOR THE SINKING.

The treacherous weather conditions are an obvious factor, but experts differ on what they think specifically caused the accident. Following the wreck, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board agreed that the tragedy was likely due to faulty cargo hatches, which led to flooding. Predictably, there are still those who harbor other theories, including unsecured hatches, maintenance troubles, massive waves, structural issues, and yes, even aliens. Author and Great Lakes historian Frederick Stonehouse posited that the ship likely hit a shoal and took on too much water before plunging into Lake Superior.

10. THE TRAGEDY WAS IMMORTALIZED BY A CANADIAN FOLK SINGER.

Gordon Lightfoot, who had released 10 albums from 1966 to 1975, was inspired to write the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after reading an article about the tragedy in Newsweek. He included the song on his 1976 album Summertime Dream, and the nearly six-minute single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts that year and became Lightfoot’s second-most successful hit.

11. FAMILY MEMBERS REQUESTED A SYMBOLIC MEMORIAL FROM THE SHIP.

The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard deployed planes and cutters with magnetic anomaly detectors, sidescan sonar, and sonar survey to find the wreckage. In May, a Navy underwater recovery vehicle was sent to the site, and on May 20, 1976, the ship was spotted 535 below the surface of the lake.

In the decades since, only a handful of people have been able to see the wreck, which lies in two pieces. A pair of divers made their way down in 1995, the same year a crew—with help from the Canadian Navy, the National Geographic Society, Sony, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians—retrieved the ship's bell at the behest of the families of those who were lost. The Canadian government has since prohibited access to the site. 

In eerie archival tapes below, you can hear Anderson skipper Jesse Cooper correspond with the Coast Guard, and see video of the wreck.

12. THERE'S AN ANNUAL REMEMBRANCE DAY.

The annual Edmund Fitzgerald memorial ceremony takes place on November 10th at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The recovered and restored bell will toll 29 times for each member of the Fitzgerald's crew, and a 30th for the estimated 30,000 mariners lost on the Great Lakes.

For more on the story and the ship, visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online

This article originally appeared in 2015.

Two Harvard Scientists Suggest 'Oumuamua Could Be, Uh, an Alien Probe

ESO/M. Kornmesser
ESO/M. Kornmesser

An odd, cigar-shaped object has been stumping scientists ever since it zoomed into our solar system last year. Dubbed 'Oumuamua (pronounced oh-MOO-ah-MOO-ah), it was first seen through the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii in October 2017. 'Oumuamua moved at an unusually high speed and in a different kind of orbit than those of comets or asteroids, leading scientists to conclude that it didn't originate in our solar system. It was the first interstellar object to arrive from somewhere else, but its visit was brief. After being spotted over Chile and other locales, 'Oumuamua left last January, leaving lots of questions in its wake.

Now, two researchers at Harvard University bury a surprising suggestion in a new paper that analyzes the object's movement: 'Oumuamua could be an alien probe. Sure, why not?

First, astrophysicists Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb argue that 'Oumuamua is being driven through space by solar radiation pressure, which could explain its uncharacteristic speed. But for that theory to work, they calculate that the object must be unusually thin. Bialy and Loeb then analyze how such a slender object might withstand collisions with dust and gases, and the force of rotation, on its interstellar journey.

Then things get weird.

"A more exotic scenario is that 'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," they write [PDF]. They suggest that ‘Oumuamua could be be a lightsail—an artificial object propelled by radiation pressure—which also happens to be the technology that the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, of which Loeb is the advisory committee chair, is trying to send into space. "Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that 'Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment,” they write.

Their paper, which was not peer-reviewed, was posted on the pre-print platform arXiv.

Loeb is well known for theorizing about alien tech. He previously suggested that intense radio signals from 2007 could be the work of aliens who travel through space on solar sails. However, Loeb acknowledged that this theory deals more with possibility than probability, The Washington Post noted. “It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge,” Loeb told the paper last year.

[h/t CNN]

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