Ask kids what they are most scared of, and with one voice they’ll shriek “SPIDERS!” Hardly surprising then that of all the phobias UK people suffer, nearly half involve creepy crawlies, spiders taking the crown. And no less than three quarters of undergrads canvassed admitted to some level of arachnophobia.
Arachnophobes have always been a puzzle to me. Despite having once been on the receiving end of a startling nip, I love spiders. The cobwebs in the corners of my house are designated conservation zones where no duster is permitted. Tell me, what’s not to love? Any creature that can draw silk like magic out of its own body, and spin the thing of beauty that is the spider’s web, deserves better PR – IMHO.
My personal favourite has to be Bagheera Kiplingi, who out of 40,000 named species, is the only known vegan spider in existence! It’s name alone is endearing. This is what the BBC has to say about our little veggie friend: “Like other species of jumping spider, Bagheera kiplingi has keen eyesight, is especially fast and agile and is thought to have good cognitive skills, which allows it to “hunt” down this plant food.” See, these little guys are clever too. (Apologies if the ‘jumping’, ‘fast’ and ‘agile’ have triggered a phobic meltdown)
But come on guys, we don’t have any real monsters in the British Isles. The house spider we’re likely to find in the bath at this time of the year, or glimpse out of the corner of an eye hurtling across the floor of an evening in the flickering light from the TV, deserves to be a welcome guest. It’s estimated that one will chow down and clear your home of 2,000 unwelcome bugs and flies a year. OK, so it can be a decent-ish span from one hairy little foot across to another, especially 2,000 bugs further down the line, but it’s not exactly in dinner-plate-size tarantula league.
If you live in Central America, India, Australia or such, you’d be insane – and quite possibly on the way to meet your maker – if you weren’t anxious about spiders. But we have no spiders of evil intent here, no deadly wolf, no sinister black widow. So why the fear? If it can’t be the size, or the poison factor here in the UK, how come this irrational abhorrence of arachnids?
Arachnophobia does run in families. The question is, inherited or learned? Nature or Nurture? It seems plain commonsense that if mum or dad are scared of these beasties (and it’s more often than not mum) the kids will not be slow to pick up on it. So nurture then.
Well, yes, but not entirely. As with so many aspects of the human animal’s behaviour, unpicking the tangled web of the two Ns isn’t simple. In a 2008 study, 5 month old babies who were shown a variety of images, looked longer at the spiders than at any of the other pics. These babes were unlikely to have been ‘turned’ at such an early age. The finding indicated, the co-authors said, that “humans, like other species, may possess a cognitive mechanism for detecting specific animals that were potentially harmful throughout evolutionary history.” Arachnophobia could well be innate – evolution made us this way. Not irrational at all, but an aid to survival.
A more recent and wonderfully titled study, Spiders at the Cocktail Party, confirms the baby test finding: human evolution has passed down undiminished the ancient fear of the arachnid. This time students were shown a range of different images to identify, including several fear- or revulsion-inducing objects like needles and flies, as well as spiders. Nearly all the participants recognised the spiders more quickly than any of the other images, and also gave them more attention. The spiders were rapidly spotted, even when they appeared out on the display’s periphery, and while the central image was drawing the subjects’ focus and conscious attention.
“Spiders,” say the authors, ‘may be one of a very few evolutionarily-persistent threats that are inherently specified for visual detection and uniquely ‘prepared’ to capture attention and awareness irrespective of any foreknowledge, personal importance, or task-relevance.”
Or, in plain English: Try to complete any requisite task, and we’re beset with constant distractions. We may pride ourselves on exceptional concentration and ability to focus. But, it doesn’t matter how engrossed we may be, the one thing that is certain to grab our attention however peripheral or fleeting its appearance, and spark in us that instant phobic response – is the scary eight-legged creeping and quivering, scurrying, scuttling, spider.
It really is all in the genes. You, my arachnophobic friend, are hard-wired this way. It’s normal.
Happy Halloween – and please don’t stamp on the spiders!
(What’s wrong with me then? Why can’t I be in the arachnophobe gang? What’s gone awry with my hard-wiring? Am I missing a gene or two? Maybe I’m a Neanderthal throwback or something. Any other dis-arachnophobes out there…. )
Why Are We So Afraid of Spiders? – The Independent