A recent study from the Department of Medical, Clinical, & Experimental Psychology at a university in the Netherlands explored the idea that the fear of spiders may be linked to an instinctual feeling of disgust.
Deeper Causes of Spider Phobia
A fear of contamination is often seen in people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and in people who have a phobia. A preoccupation with avoiding germs is usually a symptom of a general fear of illness and dying. While some fear of these things is natural, people with OCD and people with a phobia go to extreme measures to avoid germs. They constantly think about the possibility of falling ill and worry incessantly. This unhealthy thought pattern is indicative of a deeper problem. Obsessive-compulsives and phobics also rely on “safety behaviors” which often allow them to avoid the object of their fear to some degree without actually treating the cause. The method of coping used by these individuals is maladaptive because it gives them a false sense of safety instead of helping them to deal with the source of the anxiety.
The researchers in the Dutch study wanted to collect concrete, measurable data to show the relationship between disgust and spider phobia. To accomplish this, they used a facial EMG on the participants. This allowed the researchers to track muscle movements of the face at certain intervals the study.
The participants, all of whom were women, were exposed to stimuli meant to inspire feelings of disgust. These stimuli were highly unpleasant and sometimes included visual and auditory imagery. The patterns of the women’s facial movements were observed throughout the process.
Next, the process was repeated with participants being told to visualize situations in which they would be confronted with spiders in some form. Once again, the facial movements were tracked by the researchers.
Findings of the Study
True to the researchers’ predictions, the people with spider phobia in the study reacted with visible disgust when imagining spiders. They also were shown to have a higher sensitivity than the non-phobic participants to disgust-inducing situations. The phobic women were more likely to be afraid of contamination than the women in the study who did not suffer from an extreme fear of spiders.
The results of the study indicate that there may be a link between certain phobias and OCD, among other mental health conditions. Whether the link is biological or not should become clear with further research.