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Afraid of Spiders? Maybe Spiderman Can Help

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
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Yaakov Hoffman, PhD.
Senior Lecturer and Clinical Psychologist
Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences
Max & Anna Webb St. Ramat-Gan, Israel, 5290002


MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?  

Foundation: This study was conceptualized during a conversation we had, namely, Dr. Yaakov Hoffman, Interdisciplinary department of social sciences, Bar Ilan University, and Professor Menachem Ben-Ezra School of Social Work, Ariel University, following the release of the Antman movie. We are both psychologists who are also avid Marvel  superhero fans. In this meaningful conversation we discussed the issue of fear of insects which led to the idea that positive exposure to phobic stimuli (exposure to spider or ants) within the context of Marvel superheroes will lead to robust reduction in phobic symptoms. As most of the conventional treatments for specific phobias use exposure to the phobic stimuli in neutral contexts, we thought that framing the exposure in a positive fun, albeit fantasy context would yield robust results, as well as perhaps reducing stigma.

Background: Spider phobia (arachnophobia) is one of the most common specific phobias (3.5-6%). Like other phobias, it is manifest by unreasonable excessive fear, immediate anxiety responses, avoidance of the stimulus (e.g., spider) or extreme distress when enduring it, and life limiting, impairs with one’s daily routine. Many may also feel disgust. These symptoms may be so strong, that persons may avoid places where spiders may be more common or even do extreme things, e.g., burn down a shed because it may have spiders inside.

Usually the treatment involves exposure to the very phobic symptom. This is true both for therapies that put the main emphasis on exposure as well as therapies that include other elements such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) where one undergoes in addition to exposure also cognitive reframing to change the way he / she views a spider (e.g., as disgusting and dangerous). Exposure to the very stimulus that is causing the phobia is understood to reduce phobic symptoms (e.g., fear and avoidance).

Most persons suffering from such phobias do not seek therapy. Most of those who seek therapy find the more potent in-vivo exposure to real spiders difficult. Indirect exposure (in-vitro) is less potent but easier. Exposure via virtual reality yields adequate results, but most therapists do not use such techniques and thus they are less available. In addition, many intervention protocols include “homework” where the client continues his/her exposure between sessions, a task often too difficult to be carried out.  In all the above, the phobic stimulus is a realistic spider.

In the current study we address if a fun, fantasy association of spiders taken from the Spiderman 2 movie would be efficacious in reducing symptom levels. We employed a general non-clinical sample of 424 participants. In one group they were queried about their arachnophobia pre- post-viewing of a 7 second movie excerpt. In a second group participants were queried about their ant phobia (Myrmecophobia) and in the remaining two groups participants were queried about their insect phobia (Entomophobia ) pre- and post- viewing  of either a 7 second Marvel opening (common to all Marvel movies) or a natural scene.

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?

Response: The findings showed that a 7 second in-vitro exposure to a Spiderman scene (peter parker being bitten by a spider) reduced spider phobia symptoms by 20%. A similar, albeit less robust reduction was observed for the Antman group. There was no significant effect in insect phobia symptoms as a result of viewing the fun Marvel opening scene or the calm natural scene. Moreover, we controlled for familiarity with Marvel superheroes; findings were not being driven by familiarity with superhero movies or comics. 

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report? 

Response: A fun type of very brief exposure was found to efficacious in reducing phobia symptoms in a non-clinical adults sample. Although there are several steps that need to be taken (see below), the current results suggest that:

  1. Positive exposure is a new concept worth further research. It may indeed make its way into existing protocols as it seems to have a high benefit-cost ratio (7 seconds exposure yielded 20% symptom reduction).
  2. Marvel movies seem to be potentially both fun and therapeutic, this in turn should foster client cooperation and motivation along with destigmatizing therapy.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work? 

  1. To examine if such results replicate to a clinical sample, where for example the entire sample is suffering from arachnophobia?
  2. To focus on research that further increases the efficacy of such exposure, namely, to increase symptom reduction beyond  20% to higher levels.
  3. To apply such potent exposure to other phobias
  4. To see if Marvel movies, where the heroes often confront their own weaknesses and fears can be utilized for other disorders such as post traumatic stress disorder.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: Exposure to Marvel’s “good ole Spidey” may be an optimal solution for persons suffering from spider phobia, who find in-vivo exposure too difficult, especially when  virtual reality is unavailable. It is a potent, fun, motivating exposure and thus should be considered  as part of a cognitive behavioral therapy protocol.

It is important to reiterate, that even though the current results were replicated (results in the Spiderman and Antman conditions were the same) and seem promising, they are still preliminary. Furthermore, as noted, the current study was conducted on a non-clinical population. Hence, future studies should focus on clinical population and see how this phase integrates within the CBT treatment as a facilitator of recovery.  

Any disclosures?

No conflict of interest, no funding was received , it was purely academic


Front. Psychiatry | doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00309

“Spidey can”: Preliminary evidence showing arachnophobia symptom reduction due to Marvel superheroes movies exposure

Yaakov S. Hoffman1*, Lia Ring2, Shani Pitcho-Prelorentzos2 and Menachem Ben-Ezra2

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Last Updated on April 25, 2019 by Marie Benz MD FAAD