Hi I’m Jen and I’m not a big fan of spiders. Research shows I’m not alone: fear of spiders is one of the most common phobias in the world. But why are so many of us scared of spiders when so few spiders are actually dangerous? And what can we do about our arachnophobia?
Itsy bitsy spider
Surveys suggest anywhere from five to thirty percent of people suffer from arachnophobia. Even scientists who study spiders and their relatives rank spiders as their second-most hated animal behind ticks. But disliking spiders doesn’t qualify you as arachnophobic. The Fear of Spiders Questionnaire is the standard psychology tool used to assess spider phobia; you can take a similar test here. To be a true arachnophobe, your fear of spiders has to interfere with your daily life: it’s not uncommon for someone with a severe spider phobia to have a full-blown panic attack at the mere sight of a spider. Many of us (me included) don’t qualify as arachnophobes; we’d just prefer not to have a large spider walk across the windscreen while we’re driving.
We know that arachnophobes perceive spiders as bigger than they actually are: the more fear a person has of spiders, the more that person will overestimate the size of the spider. People who are frightened of spiders also see a spider as closer than it is. And what exactly is it we fear about spiders? Despite what you might expect, arachnophobes aren’t usually scared of being bitten by a spider. Instead, it’s the unpredictable way spiders move and their ‘leginess’, speediness and hairiness.
Once bitten, twice shy?
Phobias often arise as a result of a traumatic experience: psychologists call it conditioning. But there have been mixed research findings when it comes to whether spider phobias usually begin with a bad personal experience. One study of adults found few of them attributed their fears to a scary encounter with a spider. Instead, people afraid of spiders reported having a family member with a similar fear. Which of course could mean there is a genetic effect, or simply that we learn to fear spiders from the people around us.
When it comes to kids, the results are different. When asked what they feared most, spiders came out top of kids’ lists. And the kids who were most scared of spiders were the ones who had had a bad personal spider experience. Amazingly, research on crickets found that unborn crickets gained a fear of spiders based on their mothers’ experiences of being placed in a tank with a wolf spider. The researchers suggest the mothers’ stressful experience leads to release of a hormone that influences the development of the young.
It’s in your genes
Could genetic factors explain arachnophobia? In a study of twins, researchers found strong evidence for fear of spiders being a characteristic we inherit.
Some researchers have argued arachnophobia could be a product of human evolution. During our very early days in Africa, there were a number of highly venomous spiders and it makes sense that people who were able to spot them and avoid such spiders would have been more likely to survive. So fear of spiders may be something we are born with, not something we learn.
And it turns out we are very good at detecting spiders. We are particularly good at picking out the shape of a spider from a background of similar colours. Even children as young as three are much quicker to spot spiders than cockroaches from busy backgrounds. And 5-month old babies pay more attention to pictures of spiders than of flowers.
Regardless of why you might be scared stiff of spiders, what can you do about it? The standard treatment for a condition like arachnophobia is exposure therapy – you are slowly exposed to spiders in a series of more and more confronting steps. In one study, twelve people who were too scared to even look at a picture of a spider spent two hours undergoing exposure therapy and were able to hold a tarantula in their bare hand at the end of the session. What’s more, these people could still hold a tarantula six months later.
One challenge for exposure therapy is that it can be difficult to recreate a realistic fearful event in a therapist’s office. A good alternative is virtual reality, and exposure to virtual reality spiders also reduced fear of spiders by seventy percent. It turns out that even split-second exposure to a spider image can reduce fear. People with a spider phobia were exposed to images of either spiders or flowers for such a short amount of time they hadn’t consciously ‘seen’ them, but their subconscious had been exposed to the image. Sure enough, those who had ‘seen’ the spider images were less afraid of spiders than before the study whereas there was no change in spider phobia in people exposed to the flower image.
If all else fails, you can always turn to an app. In this case, Phobia free takes you through a series of images from a cute hat-wearing cartoon spider, to low-, medium- and high-fear spiders and eventually to an augmented reality tarantula. I may not be a proper arachnophobe, but I certainly don’t fancy holding a tarantula. Perhaps I’d better give the app a go.