Could arachnophobia be the result of misinformation?

Northern yellow sac spider (Cheiracanthium mildei)
Credit: Insectarium de Montréal/Laurent Desaulniers
Cheiracanthe (Cheiracanthium mildei)
  • Cheiracanthe (Cheiracanthium mildei)
  • Argiope (Argiope aurantia)
  • Dolomède ténébreuse (Dolomedes tenebrosus)
Could arachnophobia be the result of misinformation?

Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is one of the most widespread animal phobias. However, only 0.5 percent of spider species represent a real danger for humans. Moreover, most of the potentially dangerous species live outside populated areas. Confronted with spiders, people have hurt themselves or even involuntarily set fire to their homes trying to get rid of them. In most cases, the fear of spiders is more dangerous than the spiders themselves!

Where does that irrational fear come from?

The high incidence of arachnophobia can be explained in two ways. The first is that this fear may be part of our DNA. It would constitute an adaptation of the human species in order to avoid dangerous bites. That hypothesis has been challenged, however, since there are no dangerous spiders in North Africa or the Middle East, the cradle of humankind. The second explanation is that arachnophobia might be cultural, maintained by the way spiders are represented in the media, on film and in literature. Think for example of the 1990 movie Arachnophobia, or more recently the characters Aragog and Arachne in Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings respectively.

A first global study on misinformation about spiders

To get to the bottom of all this, the Insectarium took part in a major study bringing together some 60 experts aiming at a better understanding of how these animals are depicted in media around the world. More than 5,000 articles were examined, with researchers looking for elements like anatomical and identification errors, whether or not an expert was involved, the use of sensationalist vocabulary, the presence of pictures, and so on.

We found that almost half the articles are sensationalist, contain errors, or both. Sensationalist news items use a vocabulary that exaggerates the dangerousness of spiders: attack, terror, nightmare, and the like. The most common mistakes consisted in presenting spiders as insects – whereas they’re arachnids – or else in talking about stings instead of bites. It’s therefore reasonable to suppose that misinformation contributes to arachnophobia. One of the positive messages in the study is that the intervention of experts on spiders reduces the risk of sensationalism and mistakes.

Good news: there are experts to keep you informed!

Did you know? The Insectarium’s entomological information service receives an average of a hundred requests a year about spiders. Those are primarily identification requests, which are often accompanied by concerns about venom. Almost all spiders produce venom, but this rarely represents a danger for humans. Among the roughly 700 spider species found in Québec, not one is a threat to human health, and all are important for the stability of ecosystems. Some can reach impressive sizes, like the argiopes and the dolomedes. Others are discreet housemates, like the yellow sac spider. In all cases, don’t hesitate to write us to find out more about these animals, and turn your fear into fascination!

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