Fighting spider-fear with a little Spider-Man

Seeing Spider-Man or Ant-Man leads to more positive feelings for the real-life critters

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A friendly neighborhood Spider-Man might help calm people’s fear of spiders, a new study shows.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Many people aren’t big spider fans. The webs stick to your face and arms. The spiders themselves can have long, creepy legs. Some spiders even bite. But Spider-Man is another story. The web-swinging hero has all those spider-skills, but less of the spider-creepiness. And Spider-Man might also have another super power: He might help people see spiders less negatively, a new study finds.

Menachem Ben-Ezra is a proud fan of the Marvel Universe — a world in comics and movies that includes Spider-Men, Black Widow and Ant-Man, as well as less-buggy superheroes such as Black Panther, Thor and Iron Man. Ben-Ezra is also a psychologist, a scientist who studies the human mind. He works at Ariel University in Israel. When Ben-Ezra and his family went to see the 2018 movie Ant-Man and the Wasp, he walked into the movie — and walked out with a scientific idea. “I said to my wife, ‘I have an idea for a study,’” he recalls. “We should measure people before they go into the theater, and afterwards to see if the fear of ants would be reduced or changed.”

Ben-Ezra took his idea to his colleague (and fellow Marvel fan) Yaakov Hoffman. Hoffman is also a psychologist. He works at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He noted that too many people are afraid of ants. Lots of people also fear spiders, so why not study Spider-Man, too?

They did. After exposing these fearful people to brief snippets of Spider-Man and Ant-Man movies, they left claiming to now be less frightened of those critters than before. Hoffman and Ben-Ezra shared their findings June 7 in Frontiers in Psychiatry.

From spider-foe to spider-friend?

This is the clip participants saw from the 2002 Spider-Man movie.
Menachem Ben-Ezra/YouTube

The scientists had recruited 424 people to take an online survey. They asked about one-quarter of them about spiders. Did they find them scary? Did seeing one make their heart race and palms sweat — signs of panic? A second group received similar questions, this time about ants. The last two groups got the same questions about other arthropods, from centipedes to wasps. 

Afterward, everyone watched YouTube videos.

Group one got a seven-second clip of the 2002 Spider-Man movie. It featured an escaped spider climbing its web. This spider is the experimental subject that eventually bites Peter Parker, turning him into Spider-Man. Group two got a seven-second clip from Ant-Man and the Wasp. This clip featured a tiny Ant-Man leaping across a bridge made of fire ants. Groups three and four watched unrelated video clips — of the Marvel opening theme or of wheat waving peacefully in the breeze.

This is the clip participants saw from the 2018 movie Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Menachem Ben-Ezra/YouTube

Seven seconds isn’t long. Yet such a brief exposure was exactly the point, Hoffman says. “We don’t want to show someone a movie for an hour and a half to get an effect,” he says. That’s just too long.

Seven seconds turned out to be long enough for science. After viewing the quick movie bits, Hoffman and Ben-Ezra again asked the participants how they felt about spiders, ants or arthropods in general — and found the ant and spider exposures seemed to desensitize people and make them less afraid.

From fear to phobia treatment? Not yet.

“I think the study was quite interesting,” says David Michaliszyn. He’s a psychologist who works at the Montréal West Island Integrated University Health and Social Services System. “I haven’t seen Spider-Man, but to me it would be maybe an easy introductory or first step” to help someone counter their fear of spiders, he says.

Hoffman and Ben-Ezra aren’t really interested in whether most people get the heebie-jeebies from creepy crawlies. They are interested in extreme, irrational fears of things that don’t pose a lot of danger. Between 3.5 and 6.1 percent of people experience such a phobia of spiders. It’s called arachnophobia (Ah-RAK-no-FOH-bee-ah). Someone with this intense fear of spiders might not just scream when they see one. They might also avoid any place where they’d be likely to see a spider. For instance, they might never go into a garage or attic. When faced with a spider, arachnophobes might get sweaty palms or feel their hearts race — signs of panic. Phobias can stop people from traveling, working and enjoying their lives.

Eventually, Hoffman and Ben-Ezra hope that their Marvel movie research might help people with phobias. But they caution that people with phobias shouldn’t just run out and watch movies and expect their fears to go away. “What we did is only the first step in a very long road,” Ben-Ezra says. “We didn’t say you’ll be cured. We don’t have evidence for that.”

But eventually, presenting people’s fears in a positive context — such as a superhero movie — might help people overcome their fear or disgust. After all, if spiders produce Spider-Man, maybe they’re not so bad.    

Bethany is the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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