Why are So Many People Afraid of Spiders?



Brown Recluse

How is a fear of spiders so common, why are so many people afraid of them? There are many ideas of where this fear comes from, some of them based on experiences and even some based on genetics. A person’s arachnophobia can be from a direct negative experience with a spider, but a lot of the time it could stem from something a lot less practical. Ideas for other reasons a person could be afraid of spiders are evolution, cultural background, or learning to hate them from someone else. Most people have probably never been bit by a spider before, so there has to be some merit to other causes of arachnophobia besides being conditioned to not like spiders from experience.

“In 1991, Graham Davey at City University London ran a study to understand more about this view. He interviewed 118 undergraduate students about their fears of spiders. About 75% of the people sampled were either mildly or severely afraid of spiders. Of those most were female” (Dean 2013).

Different studies produce different results, another UK study on 261 adults said that “nearly 32% of women and 18% of men in the group felt anxious, nervous, or extremely frightened when confronted with a spider” (Dean 2013). These numbers of how many people have arachnophobia vary from study to study and it greatly depends on how it is defined. It makes a difference if the study only considers people who are terrified of spiders as having arachnophobia or if it also includes people that dislike spiders or find them creepy. Let’s look further into other causes of arachnophobia.

“There was also an effect from family. Those people fearful of spiders reported having a family member with similar fears, but the study was unable to separate genetic factors from environmental ones. What is surprising is that Davey found that archanophobia wasn’t the result of specific “spider trauma”, which means there was no support for the conditioning view” (Dean 2013).  This is an idea that being afraid of spiders could be learned from other people, if a parent or friend is scared of spiders and would freak out when seeing one, this behavior could be picked up by the kid and seen as a normal response.

“So what makes spiders so terrifying? 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.” (Dean 2013)

I find it very interesting that a big explanation for the fear of spiders that is so common could just be because they have two more legs than insects and they move around weird. Another theory is that spiders used to be more dangerous to humans in ancient times. “One prominent theory states that early on in human evolution, spiders posed a threat, so we’ve developed a sort of hair-trigger reaction to them” (Dean 2013). This idea is backed up by the claim that, “You can see this in children as young as three. When they are shown pictures of either spiders or cockroaches, the children are much quicker to spot the spiders. This is unusual since cockroaches are also unattractive creepy-crawlies” (Dean 2013). There’s no numbers to back this up, but it’s an interesting claim. But, why isn’t everyone afraid of spiders then? Could some humans have an innate fear of spiders while others do not?

Cultural background is an interesting idea to consider, “In some parts of the world, the general population is unafraid of spiders, and in some cultures they are a delicacy. In the UK, spiders are often featured in horror films and they are culturally seen as not very nice creatures that are just household nuisances. This could explain, to some extent, why people can become scared of spiders” (Brown).  “The fear of spiders can be a family or cultural trait: many people in Africa are known to fear large spiders whereas in South Africa, where they eat spiders, most are unafraid” (Fear-of).

It seems likely that in any society, people are not afraid of any animals that they eat, maybe the solution is to start eating spiders in the United States? Probably not, but it would probably give people a conquering kind of feeling over spiders.

There is probably some truth to all of these factors for why so many people are afraid of spiders, even just seeing a picture of one is enough to freak some people out. Portraying them as evil in movies or creepy with Halloween decorations I’m sure does not help with arachnophobia, and these kinds of things may make them scarier to people than they otherwise would be.

Symptoms that can arise from arachnophobia can be quite serious if someone is deathly afraid of spiders, someone just shouting the word “SPIDER!” could lead this kind of person to experience rapid heart rate, dizziness, chest pain, and feeling of choking.

What most people probably don’t know is that arachnophobia can be cured! I’m sure the majority of people don’t need to seek treatment for this but for the few that have extreme arachnophobia, meeting with a counselor to slowly get over your fear could be extremely beneficial! If you are afraid of spiders just know that only about a dozen spiders in the world are dangerous to humans, most of which are not found in the United States (Overton 2007).








9 thoughts on “Why are So Many People Afraid of Spiders?

  1. Pingback: To get over arachnophobia, this zoo wants you to cuddle a spider - Quartz

  2. Brian D Wess Post author

    There were a lot of different theories for why people are afraid of spiders, one that I found interesting and never even thought of that that your website also mentions is the idea that spiders used to be more of a threat to humans in earlier times. I would definitely agree that the media has made the fear of spiders worse and makes people think spiders are scarier than they actually are. They are usually portrayed as evil and dangerous in movies, and even on television they will really on show and talk about the dangerous spiders. While these programs on networks like Discovery are correct, it could lead someone to believe that a lot more spiders are dangerous than what actually is true.

  3. Shannon Rose Beam

    I’ll first admit that for my entire life I have been afraid of spiders. I like how you use meta-analysis in your post and talked about different studies about spiders. I guess you’re right spiders do move around weirdly, but I don’t think that’s the main reason why people are scared of them. Another interesting point that you bring up is the fact that in some parts of the world people aren’t scared of spiders. I found this article and it talks about how elementary school children think that spiders are dangerous. I feel that TV is to blame for many people being misinformed about Spiders. Here the is the article I was talking about, definitely check it out.

  4. Brian D Wess Post author

    Hi Claire, thanks for your reply that was a really interesting perspective to read. Your psychology professor did the typical progression for getting over a fear, by basically trying to get you to slowly realize that the spider is not as scary as it seems and trying to get you to realize that the fear was all in your head. Were you able to do all of the different steps without an increase in heart rate? If not, at what point were you no longer able to maintain a normal heart rate? Was holding the spider torturous from the very beginning or was it after a certain amount of time that it became torturous? Would you say that your arachnophobia is manageable? Like are you able to go outside and not worry about spiders unless you come into contact with one? That’s interesting that you have a good idea where the fear came from, seems like it’s a combination of learning to hate them from other people as well as a traumatic experience when you were young. Yes, I have seen a picture of a wolf spider before, those spiders are huge!

  5. Claire E Going

    Hi Brian,

    I have extreme arachnophobia, so this article was very interesting for me to read, but only after shivering and having to get past the first image in your post. My psychology teacher last year attempted to rid me of my chronic fear. Every day, I would spend 30 seconds staring at a picture of a spider and measured my heart rate. After being able to look at the spider picture for that long and having my heart rate be normal, we would progress to one minute and again measure how my heart rate would increase. This would continue to touching a picture of a spider for a period of time, having a spider in a plastic case in the corner of the room, having the plastic case on my desk, and eventually, at the end of the semester, being able to hold the spider in my hand without an increase in heart rate, ridding me of my fear. This strategy did not work for me. Needless to say, I still hate spiders. I got to the point where it was on my desk and could not handle it for an entire class period. Having to touch the spider was torturous, and my teachers plan and experiment failed, but I’m sure this approach works on some people and is an effective way to get over your arachnophobia. I also know where my fear stems from. Like you wrote about in your post, I know where my fear stems from. When I was a child, both of my older sisters were deathly afraid of spiders, influencing my view of them to be deathly scary insects. Also, when I was a baby, I was crawling after a Wolf Spider thinking it was a toy (I do not suggest googling that too see one), and my mother scooped me away screaming. So I believe those events are what made me fear spiders so much today, plus, they are just freaky, hairy, and have six too many eyes. I have tried to cure my fear as your post suggests with no success. However, this post was very interesting for me to read and it can help a lot of other people! It’s important to know where your fear stems from, and different ways it can be cured.

  6. Brian D Wess Post author

    Catherine, I do not mind spiders at all but I will still kill them most of the time if they are in the house. Just because that seems like the normal thing to do and just not wanting bugs in general in the house. I found it really interesting that the fact that spiders have two more legs than insects is a big reason why people don’t like them and are fearful of them. I thought the biggest reason by far was the fear of getting bit by them, but that doesn’t seem like a huge concern. This article also says a big reason for the fear is “their angular shaped legs, dark colors and the fact they move unpredictably are all things we are hard-wired to fear. He said studies have shown that people tend to dislike angular shapes and prefer curved ones, have bad associations with dark colors, and prefer creatures we feel we can ‘understand’” (Cohen 2012). It’s interesting how humans can be ‘hard-wired’ to fear certain things.

  7. Brian D Wess Post author

    Michael, I have actually felt a similar sensation before, I knew exactly what you meant when I started reading it. When I was younger I would sometimes get the feeling that ants were crawling on me before falling asleep. I don’t really have an explanation for this, obviously it was just in my mind and not actually happening but I don’t think I used to be scared of ants or anything. So I’m not sure why I experienced this tingling sensation unless there was another reason for it. I tried searching for an article that could explain this, but did not find anything that made sense for me.

  8. Catherine Mott

    This is a great blog, because i do in fact think many people are scared of spiders. I have never liked spiders, but i am usually one to get rid of them shall we say. My mom has always told me they are more scared of me, because i am like a giant to them but i can never shake the feeling of just letting them go. However, i can never seem to get rid of the creepy 8 legged ones that come out of the drain in the sink or in the shower. The way they crawl gives me the chills, especially when they are in the same shower i shower in everyday to get clean. You say that spiders use to be more dangerous to humans in ancient times, but as far as i am concerned, they will always be dangerous to me.

  9. Michael E Rosenthal

    Throughout my entire life I have been petrified of spiders. No matter how big or small whenever one crosses my path I immediately get the chills and feel a tingling sensation going down my body. To some degree I feel as though I have Morgellons Disease, which is the feeling of bugs crawling on you. Here is an link to an article that goes more into detail about it. Click Here

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