Why are we afraid of spiders?

Arachnophobes experience strong feelings of fear and disgust towards spiders. For some, even pictures of spiders can be disturbing. We hope that this image of Halloween decorations does not evoke those feelings in our readers. Photo by Alex Simpson on Unsplash

Reference: Mammola, S., Nanni, V., Pantini, P., & Isaia, M. (2020). Media framing of spiders may exacerbate arachnophobic sentiments. People and Nature.

Picture this: a spider is hanging from a web in the corner of your kitchen, slowly plucking at the air with its eight hair-thin legs. Do you leave it alone, grab a broom to kill it, or stand there paralyzed with terror, unable to bring yourself to deal with your new, unwanted roommate?

The number of people who would find themselves full of fear is surprisingly high. Arachnophobia, or fear of spiders, is one of the leading phobias in the world, affecting three to ten people out of a hundred (1). For people with this phobia, spiders elicit anxiety and disgust, and even touching a spider with a broom can cause distress.

But why are so many people afraid of spiders? After all, most of us will (thankfully) never suffer a dangerous spider bite. Is this fear innate or does our environment nudge us to feel disgust and distrust towards spiders?

There may not be that many dedicated spider enthusiasts in the world, but Dr. Marco Isaia and his research group at the University of Turin, Italy, can certainly count themselves among this limited cohort. The research team works in the field of arachnology, studying spiders and their natural habitats. Possibly exasperated by the general public’s distaste for their fuzzy research subjects, the team decided to take the matter into their own hands and find out why spiders are so unpopular. The scientists wanted to know if the media has the power to shape the public opinion on spiders, portraying them as a bigger menace than they are. 

Word choice matters

The research team analyzed how Italian media reported spider-related incidents, such as bites or sightings, sifting through a decade’s worth of online newspaper publications. The team turned to Google News, using Italian words like “bite” (“morso”) and “spider” (“ragno”) as keywords for the search. They also looked for news articles containing names of spider species often viewed as dangerous, such as black widow (“vedova nera”).

The scientists noted the species of the spiders involved in the incident, how sensationalistic the language of the reports was, and whether any experts had been consulted for the report. The team also checked for any errors in the reports, such as incorrect identification of spider species or referring to spiders as “insects” (they are not!)

News reports often contain emotionally charged language that may affect our opinions. Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Fake spider news

The researchers discovered that over the past five years, there had been an uptick in the news mentioning black widows and brown recluse spiders. These two species are considered medically important, because their bites can kill humans. It is not surprising that any reports on these spiders tend to gain traction in the news. The scientists speculated that the reports about spiders may have surged after a brown recluse was suspected to have killed a person in 2016.

But is this disproportionate coverage justified? The team found that news about spider encounters were often ridden with errors and misinformation. Those errors typically pertained to the biology of spiders or contained pictures of wrong spider species. Most reporters did not interview any spider experts. 

Even worse, two out of three reported lethal brown recluse bites were unverifiable, because the victims may have died from other causes some time after their spider encounters. The third fatality was questioned by scientists as well. None of the perpetrating spiders were ever caught or identified by experts either, so brown recluses might be completely innocent here.

The language of spider-related news was often sensationalistic, too. Making use of such emotionally charged words as “fear”, “nightmare”, “killer”, and “attack”, the media painted a gruesome image of black widows and brown recluse spiders. Such sensationalistic reports were also shared on social media more than neutral news, possibly fueling the smear campaign against spiders.

Dr. Marco Isaia and his research team lamented this fanning of arachnophobic sentiments. They speculated that the widespread disgust for spiders can discourage young scientists from pursuing arachnology. Even worse, it can harm the efforts for preserving biodiversity of spiders, whose pest-eating habits are very important for both ecology and economy (2)

Arachnophobia and the brain

It is no secret that the media holds a lot of sway over our worldview. But are sensationalistic reports actually powerful enough to single-handedly account for the widespread fear of spiders?

Science says: maybe not. Even infants much too young to learn from the media exhibit wariness of spiders, a study found. So, is arachnophobia innate to our minds, at least to some extent?

Some scientists have argued that fear of spiders is an evolutionary relic from the times when our ancestors lived close to nature, had little knowledge of emergency medicine, and thus got to live longer – and have children – if they avoided potentially deadly venomous creatures. And what better motivation to stay away from suspicious eight-legged crawling balls of fuzz than intense feelings of fear and disgust? 

A healthy fear of unknown creatures kept people safe for thousands of years, but the modern media may be fanning its flames. Many other dangers lurk in the natural world, and so arachnophobic feelings might be more prevalent and intense than evolution has built into our brains.

Whether arachnophobia hails from our genes or from our social media feeds or is caused by one and exacerbated by the other, our brains certainly reflect this fear. A brain activity imaging study showed that when people with arachnophobia looked at pictures of spiders, specific regions of their brains became more active than in non-phobic people. Those active regions included the amygdala – the brain region that many scientists associate with processing fear. 

Brain activation patterns don’t tell us the cause of arachnophobia but support the idea that it is nestled deeply in our minds. Yet it is important to remember that the media has significantly soiled spiders’ reputation. The vast majority of spiders won’t hurt us and, disturbing as they may look, they are important to nature. So if you don’t like spiders and discover one in your kitchen, consider gently removing it from your home instead of squashing it with a shoe – or even let it stay as a free and eco-friendly Halloween decoration.

Additional References:

  1. Polák, J., Sedláčková, K., Landová, E., & Frynta, D. (2020). Faster detection of snake and spider phobia: Revisited. Heliyon6(5), e03968.
  2. Investigating community food webs: The ecological importance of spiders. Science Friday. https://www.sciencefriday.com/educational-resources/investigating-community-food-webs-ecological-importance-spiders.