Science Figures Out How to Overcome Your Fear of Spiders

Active expectation of confronting spiders reduces arachnophobes’ anxiety while uncertainty about seeing any just makes matters worse, Israeli psychologists find

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A male Peacock Jumping Spider
A male Peacock Jumping Spider, whose beauty could put a real peacock to shame. Credit: Adam Fletcher / Biosphoto / AFP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Spiders are icky. There’s a reason they star in horror flicks: Most people have an atavistic abhorrence for the hapless arachnids.

Evolutionists would say a hereditary abhorrence of spiders, snakes et cetera makes sense. Some are venomous so people who shy away from them can survive and procreate while others get bitten and die and don’t procreate. However, by now we’re beyond being terrified by eclipses, for example, because we understand what they are. We also now know that of the 43,000-or-so species of spider, few are venomous and among those, even fewer are deadly to humans.

It’s high time to move beyond our fear of (most) spiders, stop smacking them with a rolled-up newspaper and welcome them into our parlor.

But can we actually develop arachnid appreciation up close and in person, gazing into its eight eyes? Beyond their appetite for flies and mosquitoes, that is?

Probably not but at least, when you expect a spider, you may be less afraid of it. At least that’s the conclusion of a study by Dr. Hadas Okon-Singer, head of the University of Haifa’s Cognition-Emotion Interaction Lab, doctoral students Elinor Abado and Jasmine Sagi, and master’s degree student Nir Silber, together with colleagues in Belgium and Switzerland, was published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy.

It’s all about reducing uncertainty, which reduces anxiety, which reduces attention bias, Okon-Singer explains to Haaretz.

You will see a spider

Say you’re going on a trip and have the option to choose Route A, where you the probability of encountering spiders is 50 percent, or Route B, where you will definitely encounter spiders.

The first option involves profound uncertainty. The second involves less uncertainty: You will see a spider.

Sean Connery as James Bond in "Dr. No" (1962). There’s a reason spiders star in scary flicks.Credit: Eon Productions / Collection Christophel

People will generally choose the second option, Okon-Singer explains – because they can prepare for it. They know they will meet the beast and can strategize about how to respond. “I can say, I will breathe deeply but won’t be surprised by it and will survive,” she explains.

Psychologically speaking, if we anticipate spiders, it lessens the anxiety of seeing spiders (we will), and decreases our “attention bias,” Okon-Singer says. Which means what?

“Attention bias” refers to the unarguable fact that in a state of arthropod-related uncertainty, arachnophobes will spend more time looking for spiders than arachnophiles, and when the ‘phobes see a spider, they fixate on it and pay a cognitive price as a result. The ‘philes coo and move on.

The more anxious and uncertain we are, the more our cognitive abilities are impaired. So certainty is beneficial even when it refers to something theoretically undesirable, like encountering spiders. 

Think about the coronavirus: You’d rather know for a fact that the kids won’t be going to school for a year so you can prepare, rather than face constant day-to-day uncertainty about whether they have class, where they have it, and so on, the researcher explains.

"The Giant Spider Invasion" (1975) sci-fi movie

Spider or bird

Technically what the researchers wanted to see was whether they could change the attention bias among arachnophobes by changing their certainty level. And how did they do this? By showing subjects in the experiment, some intensely spider-averse and others not, 300 matrices of pictures. Each matrix contained nine pictures: eight of butterflies and one either a spider or a bird.

Attention bias was measured by the speed and accuracy with which the subjects identified whether the ninth image was spider or bird. The patterns regarding the ninth image – the frequency at which this or that was shown – varied.

A matrix of nine photos shown to subjects in the experiment conducted by University of Haifa’s Cognition-Emotion Interaction Lab and colleagues abroad.Credit: Cognition-Emotion Interaction Lab/University of Haifa

“When the participants realized that in most cases they were seeing a bird – regardless of the hints we provided – they became more certain that in the next picture, too, they would not see the object that frightens them. Conversely, when in most cases they saw a spider, they became more certain that the next time they would be exposed to the frightening object. When they were unable to identify a pattern, they remained in a state of uncertainty,” the researchers wrote.

The bottom line is that the more uncertain the subjects were that they’d be seeing a horrible spider as opposed to a lovely bird – the more anxious they were, and the less accurate.

It bears adding that some spiders are beautiful, featuring enough coloration to put a peacock to shame, and that some birds are extremely aggressive.

10 Most Beautiful Spiders in the World

How useful is this research? Certainly it speaks to therapists treating phobias. For us folks at home, the take-home lesson seems to be that we’re probably better off assuming our domiciles are riddled with spiders and get on with our lives.

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