Seven seconds of Spiderman viewing yields a 20% phobia symptom reduction

Summary: Study reports people with insect phobias reported a 20% reduction in symptoms following seven-seconds of exposure to the superhero movies Spiderman and Antman.

Source: Bar-Ilan University

As the Marvel Avenger Endgame premieres in movie theaters this week, Israeli researchers are revealing that exposure to Spiderman and Antman movie excerpts decreases symptoms of spider and ant phobias, respectively.

Exposure therapy for specific phobias (e.g., of ants and spiders) utilizes neutral exposure to a phobic stimulus to counteract an irrational fear. As one is increasingly exposed to the phobic stimuli one ceases to fear it. To date, the effect of positive exposure, albeit fantasy (e.g. in the form of Marvel movies), has not been attempted in cognitive behavioral therapies.

Prof. Menachem Ben-Ezra from the School of Social Work at Ariel University together with Dr. Yaakov Hoffman, of the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University, exposed 424 subjects to Spiderman and Antman movie excerpts to see if spider and ant phobic symptoms would decrease. Their findings were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

Screening a seven-second excerpt of a spider scene from Spiderman 2 reduced participants’ post-viewing spider phobia (arachnophobia) symptoms score relative to their pre-viewing score by 20%. This impressive cost-benefit efficacy was similarly obtained for ant phobia (myrmecophobia) when viewing a seven-second excerpt from Antman. However, when participants were queried either about general insect phobia both pre- and post-viewing a seven-second Marvel opening scene (common to all Marvel movies) or a seven-second natural scene – there were no significant symptom reductions for insect phobia. This suggests that it was neither the calm (natural scene), nor the fun/fantasy associated with viewing a Marvel superhero movie, that was solely driving effects, but rather the specific exposure to ants and spiders in the context of a Marvel movie.

Prof. Ben-Ezra says that these results open a new direction in the efficacy of positive exposure which should be further considered. The findings suggest that fun, available and in-vitro exposure may be very powerful. Dr. Hoffman notes that this is important, as in-vitro exposure is usually less potent — at least relative to in-vivo exposure — yet since in-vivo exposure can be difficult for some clients, it often isn’t utilized. Although another adequate form of in-vitro exposure is virtual reality, it is too scarce and unavailable. Thus, exposure to Marvel’s “good ole Spidey” may be an optimal solution. Such an intervention may also destigmatize therapy, especially in resistant cases, and encourage homework completion, often an integral part of cognitive behavioral therapy. Ways of maximizing these effects, along with the challenge of applying such interventions with other phobias, are being considered by the authors.

This shows the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Spiderman ballon
Screening a seven-second excerpt of a spider scene from Spiderman 2 reduced participants’ post-viewing spider phobia (arachnophobia) symptoms score relative to their pre-viewing score by 20%. The image is in the public domain.

Aside from the scientific (potent new form of exposure) and clinical (potential efficacy of such exposure) implications, this article is timely in light of the many Marvel relevant movies of 2019 (Captain Marvel March 2019, Avengers Endgame April 2019, and Spiderman II in July 2019).

Prof. Ben-Ezra and Dr. Hoffman, both psychologists as well as avid Marvel superhero fans, point out that superhero movies may have many beneficial psychological attributes. Such movies not only help people feel better about themselves, they provide a contra to hectic and stressful lives by showing us the true underlying spirit of one confronting his/her fears. The researchers say such movies may be beneficial also for persons suffering from the aftermath of trauma. In the next stage of their research, the authors will examine other benefits of Marvel movie viewing vis-à-vis post-traumatic stress disorder.

About this neuroscience research article

Bar-Ilan University
Media Contacts:
Elana Oberlander – Bar-Ilan University
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access.
“”Spidey can”: Preliminary evidence showing arachnophobia symptom reduction due to Marvel superheroes movies exposure” Yaakov S. Hoffman, Lia Ring, Shani Pitcho-Prelorentzos and Menachem Ben-Ezra. Frontiers in Psychiatry. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00309


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

Fear of insects, mainly spiders, is considered one of the most common insect phobias. However, to date, no conducted studies have examined the effects of phobic stimuli exposure (spiders/ants) within the positive context of Marvel superheroes movies, such as “Spiderman” or “Antman”. A convenience sample of 424 participants divided into four groups watched different clips. Two intervention groups (Spiderman/Antman) and two control groups (Marvel opening/natural scene) were measured twice (pre-post intervention). The measures comprised an online survey assessing socio-demographic variables, familiarity with Marvel movies, comics and phobic symptoms. Reduction in phobic symptoms was significant in the Spiderman and Antman groups in comparison to the control groups. Seven second exposure to insect-specific stimuli within a positive context, reduces the level of phobic symptoms. Incorporating exposure to short scenes from Marvel Cinematic Universe within a therapeutic protocol for such phobias may be robustly efficacious and enhance cooperation and motivation by rendering the therapy as less stigmatic.

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