Mind & Body

Watching "Spider-Man" May Reduce Arachnophobia

We already knew that Spider-Man could shoot super-strong webbing out of his wrists, kiss upside down (even in the rain!), and rake in hundreds of billions at the box office. Turns out, he may have another superpower, too: alleviating arachnophobia.

Seven Seconds of Spider

For a paper recently accepted for publication in Frontiers in Psychiatry, two Israeli scientists (and superhero fans) recruited a sample of 424 adults on social media and showed them each a seven-second video.

The participants didn't all watch the same thing, however; they were randomly assigned to watch one of four videos. One clip came from "Spider-Man," and another from "Ant-Man." Both of these were chosen to test the concept of Marvel movies as phobia treatments. The other two videos were controls: a nature scene, and a fast-paced Marvel movie opening sequence.

In the seven-second Ant-Man clip, a swarm of chittering fire ants — "known for their bite," a voiceover tells us — form a bridge that helps Ant-Man cross a mysterious gulf. In the seven-second Spider-Man clip, the camera, initially shooting an office scene from above, shifts focus to show a spiderweb in the foreground, with a spider lurking in its strands.

Before and after watching their designated videos, participants took various tests that gauged their familiarity with and enjoyment of Marvel movies and the scope of their fear of insects. For instance: Did insects (ants in the case of the Ant-Man group and spiders in the case of the Spider-Man group) prompt "sudden terror, fear, or fright" for them?

Superhero Exposure Therapy?

So, did Spider-Man and Ant-Man decrease participants' self-reported phobia levels? The researchers thought the films might because it's already fairly mainstream to treat phobias with exposure therapy. This involves directly and neutrally exposing someone with a phobia to the thing they fear, whether it's a high ledge, a friendly clown, or a spider.

The theory of the therapy goes that steady exposure helps a person get used to the thing they fear and view it as normal rather than terrifying. For instance, spending some time with a sleeping tarantula in a terrarium might teach a person that spiders are less threatening (and more sleepy!) than they seem.

But what if people with phobias were exposed to the thing they feared in a not just neutral, but positive context?

This study suggests that this works too. The Spider-Man and Ant-Man clips did reduce study participants' self-evaluated phobia levels significantly — by about 20 percent, to be exact. The people who watched the control videos didn't experience a similar therapeutic effect, which means that it wasn't a phenomenon of the Marvel cinematic universe or of videos in general.

The study results are especially noteworthy because the videos were so short — the branded Marvel clip at the beginning of the movie is more than four times that long! — and because the exposure took place "in vitro," as opposed to "in vivo." In other words, participants were confronted with bugs in a controlled and simulated setting, not in their real attic. But still, the effect was significant!

Research still remains to be done on what precisely causes this phobia-reduction effect, and how long it lasts. The effect the researchers measured was short-term — but do the benefits linger for a month? A year? What's more important: the superhero element, or showing bugs on-screen? Another potential direction for research: Does the phobia reduction last longer if people watch longer chunks of superhero movies?

For now, it's unclear — but it seems like superheroes have even more powers than we previously knew, and they deserve our respect. Who knows — next, we could find out the Hulk cures cancer.

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Written by Mae Rice May 20, 2019

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