Fear of mice and rats is one of the most common specific phobias. It is sometimes referred to as musophobia (from Greek μῦς "mouse") or murophobia (a coinage from the taxonomic adjective "murine" for the family Muridae that encompasses mice and rats), or as suriphobia, from French souris, "mouse".
The phobia, as an unreasonable and disproportionate fear, is distinct from reasonable concern about rats and mice contaminating food supplies, which may potentially be universal to all times, places, and cultures where stored grain attracts rodents, which then consume or contaminate the food supply.
In many cases a phobic fear of mice is a socially induced conditioned response, combined with (and originated in) the startle response (a response to an unexpected stimulus) common in many animals, including humans, rather than a real disorder. At the same time, as is common with specific phobias, an occasional fright may give rise to abnormal anxiety that requires treatment.
Fear of mice may be treated by any standard treatment for specific phobias. The standard treatment of animal phobia is systematic desensitization, and this can be done in the consulting room (in vivo), or in hypnosis (in vitro). Some clinicians use a combination of both in vivo and in vitro desensitization during treatment. It is also helpful to encourage patients to experience some positive associations with mice: thus, the feared stimulus is paired with the positive rather than being continuously reinforced by the negative.
An exaggerated, phobic fear of mice and rats has traditionally been depicted as a stereotypical trait of women, with numerous books, cartoons, television shows, and films portraying hysterical women screaming and jumping atop chairs or tables at the sight of a mouse – for example, Mammy Two Shoes in Tom and Jerry. Despite the gender-stereotyped portrayal Western musophobia has always been experienced by individuals of both sexes.
- In George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four the protagonist Winston Smith has a phobic fear of rats.
- In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Henry Jones is described as being "scared to death" of rats.
- The titular character in the Doraemon series is scared of mice, due to having had his robotic ears bitten off by mice.
Elephants and mice
There is a common Western folk belief that elephants are afraid of mice. The earliest reference to this claim is probably by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, book VIII. As translated by Philemon Holland (1601), "Of all other living creatures, they [elephants] cannot abide a mouse or a rat." Numerous zoos and zoologists have shown that elephants can be conditioned not to react. MythBusters performed an experiment in which, indeed, multiple elephants did attempt to avoid a mouse, showing there may be some basis for this belief. It is not known why elephants should react in this way, though there are several theories. Regardless, elephantine murophobia remains the basis of various jokes and metaphors.
In the Malay Archipelago, one of the fables of "Sang Kancil" tells of a meeting among all animals to choose a king from among them. The elephant, deer, tiger, and mouse offered themselves to be elected and it was decided that they should have a series of contests between them to decide the matter. After the deer and tiger are eliminated, the mouse and the elephant compete in a duel. The mouse tried to beat and bite at the elephant but the elephant's hide was thick. Because the elephant thought he was strong, he just sat and laughed at the mouse. The mouse got angry and finally climbed into the elephant's ear. The elephant got afraid and stomped his feet. The mouse then got afraid and bit the elephant's eardrum as hard as he could. The elephant was in great pain and ran around and hit all the tree trunks. Finally, the elephant admitted defeat and the mouse was declared king.
- Kraft D & Kraft T (2010). Use of in vivo and in vitro desensitization in the treatment of mouse phobia: review and case study. Contemporary Hypnosis, 27 (3): 184-194.
- Gertrude of Nivelles