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Thursday, July 5, 2012


I acquired my first pet tarantula in the early 1960's, long before they were popular as pets, before any books had been written on their care (I wrote the first), and the reason I talked my high school biology teacher into ordering one for me is that I was deathly afraid of this creature, enough to have suffered through their attacks in recurring nightmares. I kept my first tarantula in a padlocked, wood and glass vivarium for two years before touching her. I had learned from Alice Gray, entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, the two best methods of picking up a tarantula, but couldn't gather up the courage to do it. Finally I set myself up. I brought my spider, in her locked container, to my high school speech class, to give a speech entitled "The Unnecessary Fear of Tarantulas." And during this speech, I would demonstrate the two ways to pick up this giant spider. My fear of public speaking, and especially of appearing foolish in front of all my classmates, was greater even than my fear of the tarantula, and I used this fact to finally force myself to touch and handle my pet. It worked.

After that, I went on eventually to write my book, All About Tarantulas, and to found the original American Tarantula Society, in which I also had the opportunity to conquer my fear of public speaking, and to publish the Society's bimonthly newsletter, the Tarantula Times. I had no trouble in gleaning information for the newsletter. Most of it was contributed by members. But occasionally I did seek out material to share, and dealing with fears and phobias was a subject close to my heart. In 1980, I contacted Dr. Ronald Kleinknecht, a professor of psychology and the director of the Psychology Counseling Clinic at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. For fifteen years he had specialized in helping people overcome their fears and phobias, and Dr. Kleinknecht was willing to be interviewed for the Tarantula Times, and here's the interview that was published in our November/December 1980 issue:

ATS:  Is the fear of spiders inborn?

Dr. Kleinknecht:  That's really hard to say. It's a tough one to try to tease out. There's pretty fair evidence that there may be some inborn component to fear of snakes, because there you can trace it back through animals. For example monkeys - all primates, in fact - have a very specific inborn fear of snakes. And that's probably the most prevalent fear in adult humans, as well; although only about 40% of the population has any sort of specific fear of snakes.

ATS:  How prevalent is arachniphobia?

Dr. Kleinknecht:  I don't have any good figures on that, but from what I can gather, among the phobias that are classified as specific small animal phobias, it's one of the more common. Some surveys that are done with people who come in for psychiatric or psychological treatment show that both the fear of spiders and of birds are very common. It would be one of the highest for people coming in for treatment, but that's a relatively small proportion of the population.

ATS:  Can the fear of spiders be linked to the fear of "creepy-crawly" things in general, or is it specifically spiders for some people?

Dr. Kleinknecht:  It could be both. With some people it could be anything - something "creepy-crawly," something they don't know about. With others it may be very specifically spiders. And they may not know what the fear is exactly. In some cases they may be able to say, "When I was a little kid someone threw a bunch of spiders on me," or "Somebody told me that if a black widow spider bites you, you'll die," and have all kinds of horror stories. That communicates a lot of information to kids that can stick with them.

ATS:  The movies haven't helped much either.

Dr. Kleinknecht:  Yes, that's another cause; popular media is a very prime way in which these kinds of fears are perpetuated. The same thing happens with dentistry. The early experiences certainly enter in, but they don't let those fade out on their own because you see it in cartoons all the time. And, as your brochure points out, the movies have really done a job on spiders and tarantulas in particular.

ATS:  Is anyone who is afraid of spiders considered to be an arachniphobic?

Dr. Kleinknecht:  Not necessarily, unless it gets to the proportions where it interferes somehow with the person's daily life or things one might want to do. If they have to avoid situations - such as a plumber who has to crawl under houses and can't because of the spiders - that would certainly be a real problem, and I would suggest that that was a phobia that ought to be treated.
A phobia is a little hard to define. You may be a little apprehensive about something or a little fearful, but you can still deal with it. And then when it gets to the point where a person really and completely avoids things and it affects one's life - when they really sort of freak out - that's when we start talking about phobia. It's hard to say where that line is; there isn't a specific point where you can say this is a phobia and this is a fear. Some other things enter in there in terms of how rational it is. If people are petrified if some lion jumps out in front of them, that's pretty rational. But if they panic when a dentist jumps out in front of them, that's another story. But, then again, if they have had some early experiences that have been pretty negative or painful, and are upset by or wish to avoid those associations, then there is some rationality in the sense that they have been hurt there before and have learned that it can happen again. And so we get varied elements of rationality. You can perhaps have something that's like a phobia that had some rational basis to begin with. But if you think about it in terms of when you go to the dentist now, chances are that you won't be hurt very badly. You may feel some pain, it's not totally painless; but comparing the pain you might experience there to something you experience in playing a football game, or just walking around and hitting your shins on a table or something, the actual pain may be greater under those conditions than the dentist. But you don't avoid tables but you do the dentist. So there is a lot of other things involved. Coming back to spiders, most people haven't been bitten by a spider and severely hurt, although some have, but I would guess that most people who say they're fearful of spiders have not had that kind of experience in their lifetime.

ATS:  Does the fear of spiders normally increase or diminish as we grow?

Dr. Kleinknecht:  Diminish, normally. It's relatively common in children under, say, ten years of age. At that time both boys and girls will have a fairly frequent fear of spiders; but after about age ten or so, boys begin losing the fear more rapidly than girls.

ATS:  Why is that?

Dr. Kleinknecht:  I suspect it's a cultural kind of thing, that boys are expected to be brave, boys are expected not to be fearful of little crawly things, and girls are expected to be fearful of them. And so the game begins; a boy grabs a snake or a spider and teases the girl with it. And if somebody chases the boy with it and he screams, he's out of it. And so they have to hide that, in a sense; and probably through that kind of exposure for a time they find that they, in fact, are expected not to be fearful and the exposure to the feared object tends to neutralize it over a period of time. Whereas the girls don't have that opportunity to be expected to do otherwise.

ATS:  What's your advice to parents in raising their children not to have phobias?

Dr. Kleinknecht:  Probably, first of all, is to take care of their own. If the parent doesn't have the fear, then they're not apt to communicate it to the child. A lot of fear does get communicated from parent to child. And so the parent should demonstrate fearlessness calmly, without belittling the child for being afraid, without grabbing a spider and running up and throwing it at the kid, but doing it in a progressive kind of way and treating it very matter-of-factly. But if the parent is fearful, the child is going to pick that up very quickly. In fact, a lot of people who come to the clinic for their own fears come in for the reason that they don't want to transmit them to their kids. One aspect of the treatment of fears is what we call the modeling procedure, where on person will demonstrate how to hold it and show that it's not harmful, and so another person learns essentially by observing that it's not to be feared. Just as the movies communicate that tarantulas are to be feared, you can go just the other way, you can learn just the opposite, that they are not to be feared. The modeling procedure is a very strong source of communication.

ATS:  How would an arachniphobic cure himself? Does a point come when he seeks professional help?

Dr. Kleinknecht:  I'm going to give you a general answer, and after that I'm going to say that I don't know exactly, and that's something that I would like to talk to you about.
I think the best way to overcome a phobia - what we might call a specific animal phobia, which is fairly common - is through non-stressful kinds of exposure to the animal in varying degrees of, say, closeness or proximity to it. And a person could probably do that himself if he wants to. The problem with many people doing this themselves is to get such an animal or object and exposing themselves to it. Maybe, first of all, just in imagination, think about the animal, and try to remain relaxed while thinking about it. Once you get so that you can think about it and after doing that a number of times, then maybe look at pictures of it, which is a little more real, and try to remain relaxed while doing so. And then move to the real live situation where you may have a spider way off in the distance, and get used to being in the same room with one in a cage or jar a certain distance away and being comfortable with that.  And then progressively move it closer until you get it right up there and touch it a hold it. That's the general kind of procedure; the exposure is probably the best - progressive stages at the person's pace, learning to be comfortable with it at certain stages. People can do that on their own, but the biggest problem is that if you're really fearful of something you don't want that exposure. And so to set that up you've got to either have someone help you or be pretty courageous yourself or have a lot of will power to try to set the thing up and force yourself into that situation. Some people do this and we refer to it as "counter-phobic" behavior, where a person will be fearful of a particular situation or object and will go overboard forcing herself into the exposure and eventually the fear diminishes. There are examples of people who have been afraid of flying, so they become airline stewardesses.
The second part of my response to that question is that I'd be interested to know if there are more people who were fearful of tarantulas or spiders in general, and have perhaps gotten involved in the ATS through that process, by learning about them. You know, another element often in the treatment is learning more about the object or situation you're fearful of, in general, so that it loses its mysteriousness and the negative aspect -- when you learn more about it and find that it's a creature just like any other creature.
Something I would like to do is to be able to do a survey with people in your organization. We do a lot of study of how to treat phobias; and it usually ends up, like so many other things, that what it boils down to is that we're just verifying things that people have been doing themselves for years anyway. I may be trying to formalize them somehow to make them more effective or efficient, but we can learn a helluva lot in finding out what people are doing out there without professional help. We have no evidence and no information at all on numbers of people or the techniques by which they overcome phobias. All we see are the ones who haven't done that; we don't know about the rest of them. There may be millions of people out there who have been phobic and have done something on their own; we don't know about that. And this may be a way to get started on finding some infomation on how things happen in the real world.

Dr. Kleinknecht's survey was mailed out along with the January/February issue of the Tarantula Times, accompanied by postpaid return envelopes. Many of us responded, and Dr. Kleinknecht published his results and findings.  I have his article somewhere, probably in a box in the attic by now, but here is an excerpt from an AARP book entitled Face Your Fears, by David Tolin:


"Psychologist Ronald Kleinknecht surveyed members of the
American Tarantula Society, a group of spider enthusiasts.
Approximately half of the members surveyed reported that
they had once been fearful of tarantulas but had overcome
their fears.  How did they do it?  The most frequently reported
way of overcoming fear was by learning more about tarantulas
-- reading articles and books or taking classes that taught them
that tarantulas were not as dangerous as they had thought.
The next most common ways they overcame fear were by
observing tarantulas and actually handling them."

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