Spider-Man – alias Peter Parker – is appearing in a movie called Marvel Avenger Endgame that is now premiering in cinemas in Israel and around the world. Spider-Man II will premier in July. Ant-Man is a 2015 American superhero film also produced by Marvel Comics.
These two could be expected to delight children but not to cure anything. Spider-Man’s foe is not only a character called Doctor Octopus, but also real phobias that people develop against spiders and ants, according to researchers at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and at Ariel University in Samaria. The fear of spiders is known to scientists as arachnophobia, while ant phobia is called myrmecophobia.
Prof. Menachem Ben-Ezra from Ariel University School of Social Work together with Dr. Yaakov Hoffman of the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University shows that seven seconds of Spider-Man viewing yields a 20% reduction in phobia symptoms from being exposed to spiders. Similar benefits were achieved by people with ant phobias who were exposed to images of Ant-Man.
Exposure therapy for specific phobias uses neutral exposure to a phobic stimulus to counteract an irrational fear. As one is increasingly exposed to the phobic stimuli, one stops being afraid of it. So far, the effect of positive exposure, albeit fantasy in the form of Marvel movies, has not been attempted in cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT).
CBT enables you to manage your fears by helping you gradually change the way you think. It is based on the interconnectedness of thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviors. A phobia sufferer believes that the feared situation is inherently dangerous, but gradual exposure to what he fears helps him get used to it.
The team exposed 424 subjects to excerpts of Spider-Man and Ant-Man movies to see if spider and ant phobic symptoms would decrease. Their findings were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry under the title “Spiderman can: Preliminary evidence showing arachnophobia symptom reduction due to Marvel superheroes movies exposure.”
Screening a seven-second excerpt of a spider scene from Spider-Man 2 reduced participants’ post-viewing arachnophobia) symptoms score, relative to their pre-viewing score by 20%. This impressive cost-benefit efficacy was similarly obtained for myrmecophobia when viewing a seven-second excerpt from Ant-Man.
But when participants were asked either about general insect phobia both before and after watching a seven-second Marvel opening scene (common to all Marvel movies) or a seven-second natural scene, there were no significant symptom reductions of 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 producing beneficial effects, but rather the specific exposure to ants and spiders in the context of a Marvel movie.
Ben-Ezra maintained that these results open a new direction in the efficacy of positive exposure which should be further considered. The findings suggest that a fun, available and in-vitro exposure performed outside their normal context may be very powerful. Hoffman notes that this is important, as in-vitro exposure is usually less potent – at least relative to in-vivo exposure – yet since exposure to an actual spider or ant can be difficult for some patients, it often isn’t used.
“Since the beginning of the new millennia, along with the increased popularity of the Internet and the rise of “Geek culture” as part of a new technological era,” they wrote, “superheroes movies based on Marvel comics has become widely popular and have been integrated as part of mainstream culture. This phenomenon has undergone another boost making it a worldwide phenomenon with the introduction of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In these movies, insects (e.g.,
Spider-Man, Ant-Man) are shown in a positive wider context.”
Although another adequate form of in-vitro exposure is virtual reality, it is too scarce and unavailable. Thus, exposure to Marvel’s “good ol’ Spidey” may be an optimal solution. Such an intervention may also destigmatize therapy, especially in resistant cases, and encourage sufferers to do their homework (viewing movie scenes), which is 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.
Ben-Ezra and Hoffman, who are both psychologists as well as avid Marvel superhero fans, point out that superhero movies may have many beneficial psychological attributes. Such movies may not only help people feel better about themselves but also 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 people suffering from the aftermath of trauma. In the next stage of their research, the authors will examine other benefits of Marvel movie viewing regarding possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.