Spider study shows there is nothing to fear but fear itself

boy looks through spider web

We did a house swap once with a family from Switzerland. We got their villa paradise on the sea in Costa Rica, they got our villa in Jaffa, Israel. We wanted to use the family unit below for my parents, and the swap family jested: “it’s tarantula mating season. I hope you enjoy seeing this special event that’s happening this time of the year. You might still catch it.”

So, I’d be lucky to see spiders is what she was saying?

The two unit villa, with us on top, wasn’t just a great venue for watching spider mating season. We were mating season. Mating season happened in the open-concept house where cracks an inch wide couldn’t keep out a cat. My parents’ apartment was full of tarantulas not just mating but having an orgy. I have no idea how my mother fell asleep in the room but she was nun-plussed with tarantulas on the wall overhead as she slept, the tarantulas filing in from the grass outside her door. 

My dad didn’t bother to shoo them out of the shower and he played footsies with them in the kitchen until he got a bad bite that lasted about 24 hours, as the internet said. My dad could tolerate a lot of pain, but the spider bite made him quite uncomfortable, mainly from the swelling. 

Why weren’t we afraid of tarantulas mating in our house? The owners told us in advance there would be spiders and that we’d be lucky to see them and all this somehow made them much less scary than the big black hairy things we’d seen on TV. So knowing they were there in advance lessened the sting. 

This is exactly the new research findings of some psychologist scientists from the Haifa University in Israel. When you know the spiders are going to be there in advance, you will have less fear for them when you see them. They offer some advice about fearing Covid too.

“The findings of this study complement those of other studies showing the uncertainty impairs our cognitive abilities and contributes to a higher level of anxiety and depression. This study shows that as certainty rises – even if it is certainty about something we perceive as negative – cognitive impairment falls,” said Dr. Hadas Okon-Singer, the head of the Cognition-Emotion Interaction Lab, where the study was held.

Using spiders to moderate anxiety over Covid

She continues, “In the current context, the Coronavirus epidemic has significantly increased the sense of uncertainty. It is possible that if we can increase the feeling of certainty, the sense of anxiety among the public could be moderated,” she offers.

In the present study, Dr. Okon-Singer, doctoral students Elinor Abado and Jasmine Sagi, and master degree student Nir Silber, all from the School of Psychological Studies at the University of Haifa, cooperated with a team of researchers from Belgium and Switzerland. The researchers sought to examine whether it is possible to change attention bias among people who suffer from fear of spiders if the level of uncertainty is changed.

The participants – including people with a high level of fear of spiders and those with a low level of fear – were presented with 300 matrices. Each matrix was comprised of nine pictures, eight of which showed butterflies while the ninth was either a spider or a bird. For each picture, a hint was also provided suggesting whether the ninth picture was a spider or a bird. Attention bias was measured by the speed and accuracy with which the participants managed to identify whether the picture was of a spider or a bird, depending on the preceding hint (if it matched the deviant picture or mismatched it). 

spider or butterfly fear matrixIn order to vary the levels of certainty, in one experiment most of the deviant pictures were of birds, while in a second experiment most of the deviant pictures were of spiders. See an example above.

The findings showed that attention bias was reduced as the level of certainty rose, when either type of deviant was presented more often, be it a bird or a spider.

The attention bias was particularly severe when the participants did not know what to expect – a bird or a spider. In these cases, they were unable to use the surrounding hints to respond according to the task.

The researchers explain that the findings of their study can serve as a foundation for research relating to cognitive training and to the development of innovative treatments for phobia, since until now this field of research has paid little attention to the aspect of certainty.

“It seems that uncertainty is one of the main hallmarks of the current period. We don’t know how long this situation will continue, we don’t know whether the education system will be opened or not and whether the lockdown will continue. We are basically in an uncertain situation. In light of the findings of the current study, it could be worth examining whether increasing uncertainty – even when it relates to a negative reality – may actually be preferable to maintaining a state of uncertainty,” Okon-Singer concludes. 

Keeping spiders at home

Spiders are an important part of every house whether you want them there or not. Most spider bites are rare, and spiders should be seen as your friend. That’s what I tell my kids when they want to smash spiders.

Spiders feed on common indoor pests, such as cockroaches, earwigs, mosquitoes, flies and clothes moths. If left alone, they will consume most of the insects in your home, providing effective home pest control without chemicals. So spiders in my home? If I know they will be there I will not be afraid.

And when I am super afraid of things I can’t control? Some people turn to CBD oil drops… I turn to this Jewish song I learned about not fearing fear. It helped me when I was 100 feet underwater doing my SCUBA diving test in Thailand, barely supervised with some drunk Irish guy as my partner. When I was sure I was about to drown, and had to take my regulator out of my mouth and clear, but obviously didn’t drown. The main message is: There is nothing to fear but fear itself.

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