You, dear reader, likely fall into one of two categories: you either like spiders, or you moved because there was one in your last house. Although, to be honest, if you don’t like spiders you probably haven’t made it this far. Resident spider expert Phil Sirvid (likes spiders) dives into why this is.
“Do you hate spiders? Do you really hate spiders? Well, they don’t like you, either!”
So runs the tagline for the 2002 movie Eight Legged Freaks, a cheesy movie about giant spiders on the rampage in a small American mining town. Obviously, the movie is ridiculous, but it taps into a genuine fear of spiders that many people have. And I get it. As someone who studies spiders I appreciate and admire them, but it wasn’t always that way. I can still recall the sense of menace that my four-year-old self felt as a tunnelweb spider crawled up my leg.
The psychology of spiders
So what are the root causes of the mortal dread some have of these mostly harmless creatures?
There have been many attempts to find out, and quite a variety of explanations posed. Is it something humans evolved to protect themselves from danger or is it something we learn from others? Traumatic experiences and cultural transmission are two possible reasons. It’s not particularly surprising that a child might learn to fear spiders after being bitten by one, or from the reactions of others.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute and Uppsala University suggest that fear of spiders might be innate. They tested the responses of six-month-old babies to images of spiders and snakes and found that they could cause stress reactions even though children that young have had no opportunity to learn anything about these animals. Other potentially dangerous animals such as bears didn’t produce the same kind of response.
A variation on this theory suggests a fear of spiders may be related to a fear of scorpions. While the case isn’t proven, it makes more sense to be wary of scorpions as they kill over 2,500 people each year. Accurate figures for global spider bite fatalities are hard to gauge, but the range is from single figures to low double figures, so scorpions are undoubtedly a greater hazard.
Some of us just don’t care for how spiders look. A Czech study looking at animal phobias found that spiders produced the perfect blend of fear and disgust in many people.
But why? A study of Slovak adults explored which anatomical features of spiders are most disturbing. A large abdomen, hairiness, and enlarged chelicerae (the structures that include the fangs) were the most triggering features, with long leggedness rating an honourable mention. My totally unscientific survey of several co-workers found unpredictable movement and turning up suddenly and unexpectedly also contributed to spiders’ perceived unpleasantness.
Whatever your feelings about spiders, the good news is that the promotional line from Eight Legged Freaks just isn’t true. While you may hate spiders, spiders don’t hate you, and even if they did, only a very few species out of the over 51,000 species known so far can cause serious harm. It’s worth remembering that spider bites are uncommon and are usually the result of the spider defending itself when it can’t escape. Aggression is rare but can sometimes be seen in female spiders defending their egg sacs. That’s just being a protective mother!
Awesome arachnid appetites
We benefit enormously from spiders too. Spiders are an important part of food chains, both as food for larger animals and as predators themselves. One study showed that spiders may consume up to 800 million tonnes of mostly insects each year. Aesthetically, while we don’t always appreciate the architects, who doesn’t find a dew-covered web enchanting? Truly, spiders are the master weavers.
And while most spiders may look horrible to some of us, there are some species such as peacock spiders that look positively adorable, even to the most hardened arachnophobe.
- Jakub Polák, Silvie Rádlová, Markéta Janovcová, Jaroslav Flegr, Eva Landová, and Daniel Frynta, ‘Scary and nasty beasts: Self-reported fear and disgust of common phobic animals’ in British Journal of Psychology, Volume 111, Issue 2, 11 June 2019, p. 297-321