Replacing anxiety with certainty: expecting spiders reduces phobia - study

"It is possible that if we can increase the feeling of certainty, the sense of anxiety among the public could be moderated."

Participants were presented with a matrix made up nine photos, eight of which were butterflies, while the ninth was either a bird or spider. (photo credit: COURTESY HAIFA UNIVERSITY)
Participants were presented with a matrix made up nine photos, eight of which were butterflies, while the ninth was either a bird or spider.
(photo credit: COURTESY HAIFA UNIVERSITY)
Scared of spiders? It's no secret that arachnophobia - the fear of spiders - is a common phenomenon, but according to a new study conducted by Haifa University, people are less afraid of spiders when someone expected one of the eight legged creatures to show up than they were if the spider took them by surprise.

The study also has benefits for non-arachnophobes, as in essence it shows that anxiety can be reduced in predictable situations when what happens next can be assured, a finding which has applications in today's uncertain times
The research, conducted at the university's School of Psychological Sciences and published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, theorizes that reducing attention bias potentially reduces anxiety. Attention bias is regarded as a basic mechanism in anxiety disorders and phobias.
In the case of arachnophobia, attention bias is demonstrated when people who are afraid of spiders spend more time looking for them compared to those who do not share similar anxieties. When an arachnophobe does find a spider, they can become fixated on it, paying cognitive prices as a result.
"The findings of this study complement those of other studies showing the uncertainty impairs our cognitive abilities and contributes to a higher level of anxiety and depression," said Dr. Hadas Okon-Singer, the head of the Cognition-Emotion Interaction Lab, where the study was held.
"This study shows that as certainty rises – even if it is certainty about something we perceive as negative – cognitive impairment falls. In the current context, the coronavirus epidemic has significantly increased the sense of uncertainty. It is possible that if we can increase the feeling of certainty, the sense of anxiety among the public could be moderated," Okon-Singer said. 
Conducting the study at Haifa University was Dr. Okon-Singer, PhD candidates Elinor Abado and Jasmine Sagi, and MA student Nir Silber, in cooperation with a team of researchers from Belgium and Switzerland.
The team aimed to identify whether the level of attention bias in arachnophobes can be reduced if their level of uncertainty is also reduced. In order to do so, study participants who had varying levels of arachnophobia were presented with 300 matrices. Each matrix was compromised of nine photos, eight of which were of butterflies, while a ninth photo in the set would either be a bird or a spider. With each presentation hints were given suggesting whether the ninth picture was a bird or a spider.
Participants were then asked to identify the ninth picture in the photo. Attention bias was measured by the speed and accuracy of the participant's decision. In order to vary the levels of certainty, in one experiment most of the deviant pictures were of birds, while in a second experiment most of the deviant pictures were of spiders. 
Findings showed that as the level of certainty rose, attention bias was reduced, when either type of deviant was presented more often, be it a bird or a spider. Notably, attention bias rose when participants did not know what to expect. In these cases, they were unable to use the surrounding hints to respond according to the task.
The researchers explain that the findings of their study can serve as a foundation for research relating to cognitive training and to the development of innovative treatments for phobia, since until now this field of research has paid little attention to the aspect of certainty.
According to Dr. Okon-Singer, growing awareness of the importance of the sense of certainty is also being reflected in other fields. For example, a study conducted at her laboratory a few months ago during a coronavirus lockdown found that the sense of uncertainty was one of the main factors influencing feelings of depression and anxiety among the public.
“It seems that uncertainty is one of the main hallmarks of the current period. We don’t know how long this situation will continue, we don’t know whether the education system will be opened or not and whether the lockdown will continue. We are basically in an uncertain situation. In light of the findings of the current study, it could be worth examining."