We Asked a Spider Expert Why People Are Scared of Spiders—and How Not to Be
If you run straight out of a room when you encounter a spider, you're definitely not alone.
It seems that most people are at least a little creeped out by spiders, but why? We needed to know, so we reached out to Chris Buddle, an arachnologist and professor at McGill University, to find out more. Not only did he inform us of the reasons why people dislike spiders, but he also gave us some great tips for combating those fears. Keep reading to see if they might work for you.
Sweety High: What is it about spiders that makes people so squeamish about them?
Chris Buddle: I think it's a couple of things. There's something that happens when you add that fourth pair of legs that tends to freak people out and changes their perceptions of a creature. I think it's also about how they move. Their movement is somewhat erratic and unpredictable, and people don't like that. You don't know where they're going. If you watch an ant, you see it go from one place to another, but when you watch a spider, you're not sure. And then there are other factors. Some are hairy and look kind of alien to us, with extra appendages, and fangs and venom.
SH: Is the fear of spiders innate, or is it learned from seeing other people's fears?
CB: The nature versus nature debate is a controversial one. There's no denying that some people have a very legitimate and diagnosable phobia of spiders. On the other hand, a lot of people are simply scared of them, and the question is why that is. I think it's a little bit of both nature and nurture.
There might be a genetic component to it, because some spiders certainly are venomous and might bite us, but I think that's a fairly minor piece of the picture. I think it's much more environmental and about how our parents react. Then there's news and media—the things we see online, the stories that are told, the hoaxes that are out there. It's the same with sharks, and with snakes. There are lots of stories about how these things are dangerous. We'd rather assign risk to a creature than we would to something that's actually risky, like driving down the highway, for example. We displace our risk on the things that seem like they're harmful.
SH: Why are spiders actually handy to have around?
CB: We don't like mosquitos and insects in our houses, and spiders are often the predators of those things. They do an immense amount of benefit to humankind by feeding on pests that we don't like. It's always a tradeoff between the benefits we get and the negative things they might bring us. They help agriculture because they feed on pests, and they're a source of food for birds.
They bring a lot of value to our ecosystems and to us as humankind, and even more than that, they have other unique benefits. Their silk has been used in biotechnology to develop new fibers for industry and to heal wounds in the medical field. Some compounds in spider venom have been used in medical trials in health care. There's a lot they do for us.
SH: And how dangerous are spiders, really?
CB: From a North American perspective, the probability of getting bit by a spider is very, very low. Even if you are bitten by a spider, the chances your reaction will be medically important is still very low. The risk is extremely small, and many bites that are attributed to spiders are actually things like a sting from an ant, or a bite from a bed bug, or other things that are more common.
Some spiders can bite humans, but it's rare. They don't want us. They're not after us as prey. They really would much rather avoid us. Plus, the species that are medically important are very reclusive and live in areas we don't hang out in, so even the chance of encountering venomous spiders is very low.
The medically important groups in North America are the brown recluse and the widows. Brown recluses are fairly restricted in where they're found. They tend only to be in the southwestern U.S., but have been known to show up elsewhere. Widows include several species, and are known to have an impact on humans. However, when the person bitten has a healthy immune system, the risk of anything bad happening is very low. If someone is immunocompromised or very young, it might be more critical for them to get medical attention. I'm not a medical doctor, but that's generally what the word on the street is about widow spiders. Out of thousands of species that exist in North America, there is only a handful that might produce reactions in humans that may require medical attention.
SH: How can those of us who generally dislike spiders condition ourselves not to be so scared?
CB: It sounds like an easy answer, but what it really takes is learning a bit about them. So much of the fear is about a lack of information and understanding of their biology and behavior. It's about starting a process. When people are scared of spiders, and really aren't sure what to do about it, I'd recommend watching YouTube videos that illustrate the biology of spiders. Avoid scary ones, where they're attacking something, and instead try watching something about the lifestyle of a spider that lives near water, or a tarantula molting, or look at a gallery of images of beautiful spiders from around the world.
Learn in an environment that feels safe. If you're at your desk, or on your phone or on the couch, and not actually interacting with spiders, you won't be so scared. Try going onto websites like the American Arachnological Society to learn some facts from experts who can help. Engage with the online community. There's a Twitter account called "Recluse or Not?" where you can tweet pictures and they'll let you know whether that spider is actually a brown recluse to ease your worries about it. The online community can really help you learn more.
Once you feel educated on them, the next step is to watch spiders from a distance, whether that's at your local park or at home. Get to know them and realize that they move slowly, and that they're not interested in us. That can gradually move toward more education and getting closer to them, where some of that general fear will really disappear.
SH: Any other tips?
CB: I think it's easy to see headlines about deadly or poisonous spiders, or someone losing an arm after a spider bite, and getting really scared. Instead, be really skeptical. Don't trust those headlines right away and spend a little time learning and it'll really change your perspective. There are lots of people out there who are happy to share their knowledge about spiders. It's easy to go to a place of fear, but it's more fulfilling to go to a place of knowledge and engagement. That can really help.
There are honestly so many beautiful galleries online illustrating the beauty of spiders. I wish people would realize how varied and wonderful they are. They've also had a profound influence on jewelry, art and mythology. There are all these rabbit holes you can go down when you realize how many places spiders have inspired artists and cultures from around the world. That's a really nice way for people to see the positives of spiders.
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