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Why Do We Fear Spiders More Than Bees?

It’s a peculiarity of human psychology that science fiction writers have exploited

Children of Time, the novel that won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award for Adrian Tchaikovsky in 2016, featured a classic science fiction theme: Humanity faces a superior civilization—in this case, a civilization of intelligent spiders.

The novel uses and reimagines familiar science fiction conceits – terraforming, superintelligence, a decaying starship – in a story that interweaves the development of an empire of spiders accidentally gifted intelligence with the descent into barbarism of a starship crew searching for a new home.

Its thoughtful depiction of two civilisations trying to understand each other cleverly inverts the usual narrative of planetary conquest, and features startling moments of cognitive estrangement during clashes with the alien, yet sympathetically drawn, spiders.

Paul Mcauley, “Tale of world of supersmart spiders takes Clarke SF award” at New Scientist (August 25, 2016)

It was a tough field with 113 competitors, more than usual. The second book in the series is Children of Ruin, in which the spiders become our allies.

Spiders loom large in our everyday fears. In a Top Ten Fictional Spiders list from 2014, readers will recognize many familiar, er, faces. A 1990 comic sci-fi film is named for the common psychological disorder Arachnophobia (irrational fear of spiders):

In real life, however, arachnophobia is a serious problem for some people:

If you have arachnophobia, you will probably go out of your way to ensure that you do not come into contact with a spider. If you find a spider in your home, you may react in one of two ways: either screaming and running away or freezing in place. You may be unable to kill or trap the spider yourself, relying on a friend or family member to rescue you from the situation. If you are alone, you may actually leave the house rather than deal with the spider.

Lisa Fritscher, “Understanding Arachnophobia or the Fear of Spiders” at Very Well Mind (April 24, 2020)

Just why we fear spiders is not obvious. University of California Riverside entomologist Rick Vetter sums up the everyday reality that we need spiders more than they need us:

”A world without spiders would be a horrible thing,” says Vetter. “They are out there everyday, taking out insects that are crop pests, that are causing all kinds of damage in the foods that we eat… taking out a lot of flies and mosquitoes that are health risks to us.”

Sushma Subramanian, “Should You Be Afraid of Spiders?” at Everyday Health (June 26, 2012)

Many who fear spiders sense that their fear is not based in reality:

If you asked most people what scares them about household spiders, they probably wouldn’t say it was the fear of a fatal bite. Everyday Health reports that out of the 40,000 species of spiders, only a few are actually dangerous.

So if we know that the vast majority of spiders that may be lurking in our homes and yards are as harmless as ladybugs and goldfish, why does the sight of one still make some people yelp?

Sophia Mitrokostas, “5 reasons why you’re so scared of spiders” at Insider (September 14, 2018)

Ah yes, why? Let’s look at some well-regarded explanations:

Spiders frightened us in childhood

Possibly, the person who panics as an adult doesn’t even remember what happened:

One study out of the University of Maastricht found that something called “spider trauma” could be at the root of arachnophobia. Spider trauma refers to a scary, spider-related event that conditions an individual to fear arachnids. This traumatic event is often thought to occur during childhood and may even be forgotten by the person, while the fear of spiders persists.

Sophia Mitrokostas, “5 reasons why you’re so scared of spiders” at Insider (September 14, 2018)

In that 1997 study, Peter Muris and colleagues at the University of Maastricht noted an interesting fact:

Not surprisingly, if you give kids a list of things that might be scary for them, the vast majority check off things like not breathing, getting hit by a car, bombs, fire or burglars as quite important. Interestingly, if you give them a free option to tell researchers what sorts of things they fear the most, both boys and girls report “spiders” as their top fear (the second fear is being kidnapped, third is predators and fourth is the dark).

Chris Buddle, “Explainer: why are we afraid of spiders?” at The Conversation (May 8, 2014)

The most fearful children recalled an event when a spider frightened them. But many moderately frightened children did not.

Some researchers ask, could the fear be inherited?

A 2003 study of identical twins who lived apart in adult life found “substantial” influences on fear of spiders from their shared genes. But even so, is genetics the root cause? The twins might have had shared experiences in childhood. In any event, living apart does not necessarily mean living in truly different environments.

A 1991 paper by Graham Davey at City University London found that, of 118 undergrads, 75% feared spiders, mildly or severely and that the latter group also reported that a family member feared spiders as well. But is that heredity or environment?

Davey found that there was evidence to support the conclusion that fear of spiders might be genetic, though critics could argue that growing up in a household where others were afraid of spiders might be more likely to make you view the creatures negatively.

Sophia Mitrokostas, “5 reasons why you’re so scared of spiders” at Insider (September 14, 2018)
Perhaps the broader culture plays a role

Consider folk beliefs about the spider in Europe vs. other parts of the world:

For example, in the Middle Ages, any food that came into contact with spiders was considered to be infected, and if a spider fell into water, then that water was considered to be poisoned. Right up to the late seventeenth century, many European spiders were thought to be poisonous and to be causes of hysteria and symptoms of illness. This was known as “tarantism”, and various forms of tarantism have been described in Sicily, Spain, Germany, Persia, Asia Minor, America and Albania. However, while the bites of some European spiders can cause systemic reactions, these bites were not the causes of many of the symptoms that they were blamed for! Similarly, in many parts of Europe during the Middle Ages, spiders were also perceived as harbingers of the Great Plagues that swept across Europe from the tenth century onwards. It was only discovered in the nineteenth century that it was the black rat that carried the fleas that spread the plague, but it is perhaps no coincidence that spiders were also found in those parts of a house occupied by the black rat (e.g., thatched roofs)…

In many areas of the world, such as Indo-China, the Caribbean, Africa, and amongst the Native Americans of North America and the aborigines of Australia, spiders are eaten as a delicacy. In addition, many cultures consider spiders to be symbols of good fortune rather than fear (e.g., Hindu culture). In support of this, a cross-cultural study of animal phobias we conducted suggested that there were significant cultural differences in fear towards the spider. While countries populated by Europeans and their descendants exhibited high levels of spider fear, this was significantly less apparent in some non-European countries, such as India.

Graham C. L. Davey, “Why Are We Afraid of Spiders?” at Psychology Today (July 21, 2014)

Of course, we still don’t know how the spider attracted all that bad publicity in Europe. In some African cultures, the spider Anansi (pictured) is a trickster folk hero and storyteller.

We overestimate the risks, thus increasing the fear

Two types of spider, the black widow and the brown recluse are causes of concern in North America. They are not aggressive but they might bite if they are, for example, sat on. Deaths from such bites are rare but widely feared:

If you wake up with a little red bump on your skin, you may have been bitten by a spider.

But most of the time, according to Vetter, what people think are spider bites actually aren’t. Even doctors often misdiagnose them. “The problem is people will associate any little red mark on their body with no known case as a spider bite,” he says. “What people believe are spider bites most often are not indeed spider bites, they are bacterial infections or maybe some scratch they get in the garden that they don’t recognize at the time.”

Sushma Subramanian, “Should You Be Afraid of Spiders?” at Everyday Health (June 26, 2012)

Looking at it from the spider’s perspective for a moment,

“They are a tiny little creature; you’re making the big thunder vibrations. They know you are bigger then them… It’s like you going up against Godzilla. [A spider’s] first tendency is going to be to run away and get as far away from you as possible, but if it’s trapped or compressed against skin or some object, it’s going to bite.”

Sushma Subramanian, “Should You Be Afraid of Spiders?” at Everyday Health (June 26, 2012)
Perhaps we evolved to fear spiders

Chris Buddle, a spider expert at McGill University, notes Graham Davey’s view: “Animal fears may represent a functionally distinct set of adaptive responses which have been selected for during the evolutionary history of the human species.”

Davies’s hypothesis:

This means that modern humans might be afraid of certain animals because we’re descended from ancient hominids who feared and avoided potentially dangerous creatures. This fear allowed them to survive and pass on their scaredy-cat genes, while less fearful early humans were killed.

Interestingly, Davey also found that if a participant was afraid of spiders, they were also more likely to be afraid of other commonly feared or disliked animals.

Sophia Mitrokostas, “5 reasons why you’re so scared of spiders” at Insider (September 14, 2018)

But then it’s unclear why that particular fear evolved:

Other psychologists argue that many animals were more likely to pose a threat to ancient humans, from tigers to crocodiles. Yet, phobias of those animals are not that common. Therefore, those psychologists feel that arachnophobia is more likely based on cultural beliefs about the nature of spiders.

Lisa Fritscher, “Understanding Arachnophobia or the Fear of Spiders” at Very Well Mind (April 24, 2020)

If inherited fear of animals that are truly dangerous confers survival, then fear of comparatively low-threat animals should have either no effect or the opposite one.

How is crippling fear of spiders treated?

It is commonly treated via exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), so that the sufferer replaces a fearful perspective on spiders with a realistic one. Live or virtual spiders may be used for this purpose:

A 2013 study by Paul Siegel and a colleague at the State University of New York found that short, rapid exposure of pictures of spiders reduced sensitivity. The underlying theory is that our unconscious minds recognize rapidly exposed images even if our conscious minds do not. At any rate, the spiderphobes, when tested later, were less afraid.

So, in the end, what makes spiders so frightening?

Could it be that they just seem weird?

Surely it must be the threat of being bitten? Davey looked at that issue too. It turns out that it is not so much a fear of being bitten, but rather the seemingly erratic movements of spiders, and their “legginess”. Davey said:

Chris Buddle, “Explainer: why are we afraid of spiders?” at The Conversation (May 8, 2014)

We seem to not like the unpredictable way spiders move – their circle of limbs makes it seem like they could dart in any direction – and their disproportionately long legs.

Sophia Mitrokostas, “5 reasons why you’re so scared of spiders” at Insider (September 14, 2018)

To make matters worse, spiders often don’t just scuttle away, like insects. They sit there in a corner of the ceiling and sometimes behave as though they are watching us. And, if there is only one spider and one human in a room, maybe the spider is watching the human. Unlike the furniture, humans move, both internally and externally. So we are bound to attract its attention. It has little else to do up there anyway. And, as researchers have discovered, spiders are smarter than we used to think.

But they’re still not dangerous. Just unsettling.

Note: The illustration of Anansi from Puerto Rico by Tere Marichal represents a prop in a play for children. Courtesy Biblioteca Juvenil Mayaguez, CC BY-SA 4.0.

You may also enjoy: In what ways are spiders intelligent? The ability to perform simple cognitive functions does not appear to depend on the vertebrate brain as such

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Why Do We Fear Spiders More Than Bees?