What Doctor Who fandom taught science about arachnophobia

Some people fear spiders more than a Sith lord zombie vampire clown, and that’s some scary, scary stuff. But why do those eight-legged crawly creatures spark the fight-or-flight reaction? Some scientists have suggested it’s because we’re hardwired for arachnophobia because sometime back in our prehistory, spiders would threaten to open up four cans of whoop-ass on us.

Not so fast, say the researchers who published the paper “But what about the Empress of Racnoss? The allocation of attention to spiders and Doctor Who in a visual search task is predicted by fear and expertise.” There may be more to our fear of spiders than ancient history. And the only way to prove it is to compare our attention to a more recent phenomenon: Doctor Who.

According to an article in Wired, the researchers broke the volunteers down into three groups: people who love Doctor Who and hate spiders; people who love Doctor Who and don’t care either way about spiders; and people who don’t know epic science fiction television when they see it (who also don’t have a problem with spiders).

“The level of test subject nerdery was determined with a Doctor Who quiz asking which planet the Doctor was from, how many hearts he had, and why the TARDIS looked like a police box, among other questions,” Wired wrote.

The participants were shown a grid of nine images that included animals, a spider and the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant. Then they were asked to pick out a picture of a cow.

It turns out that Doctor Who fans who were afraid of spiders were slow to find the cow, because the spider distracted them. But the Doctor Who fans who weren’t afraid of spiders were slow to find the cow because … David Tennant distracted them. 

What spider?

As the paper put it, “[A]llocation of attention reflected the personal relevance of the images rather than their threat content.” In other words, our attention goes to whatever is most relevant to us. And depending on just how much you like Doctor Who (or hate spiders), that’s where your attention goes.

Does this mean that authors Purkis HM, Lester KJ, Field AP have disproven the idea that we’re hard-wired to fear spiders, or anything else of “biological or evolutionary relevance?” The researchers couldn’t quite say:

“The attentional system believed to have a causal role in anxiety disorders is therefore likely to be a general system that responds not to threat but to stimulus relevance; hence, nonevolutionary images, such as those from Doctor Who, captured attention as quickly as fear-relevant spider images. Where this leaves the Empress of Racnoss, we are unsure.”

Yes, the paper cited the Empress of Rachnoss, Doctor Who’s enemy in the 2006 Christmas episode, “The Runaway Bride.” Because science is awesome, even if spiders are not.


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