Marvel heroes Spider-Man and Ant-Man team up to defeat fear itself

Seven seconds of a Marvel movie can decrease symptoms of spider and ant phobias.

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Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
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Truly a hero.

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While many Marvel fans are focused on the epic conclusion to 10 years worth of storytelling in Avengers: Endgame, a team of Israeli researchers are diving back through Marvel's movie catalog to help people overcome their fears.

New research suggests that fear of spiders (arachnophobia) and fear of ants (myrmecophobia) can be alleviated by viewing a seven-second scene from Spider-Man 2 or Ant-Man.

The study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry on April 23, showed 424 participants segments of the Sony Pictures film Spider-Man 2, the Marvel film Ant-Man, a natural scene or the Marvel opening credits scene. Prior to viewing and after viewing they measured the participants' responses in an online quiz that assessed their socio-demographic variables, familiarity with the films and phobic symptoms.

The team showed watching Spider-Man 2 alleviated some of the symptoms of spider phobia. Post-viewing phobia symptoms were decreased, relative to pre-viewing, by 20%. Similar results were seen with Ant-Man.

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The theory behind the technique is known as exposure therapy. This method is routinely used by psychiatrists to treat specific phobias by showing the patient neutral, non-harmful images of the things they are afraid of. Exposing them to their fear without consequence gradually helps ease the symptoms of the phobia.

To ensure that it wasn't just the idea of watching a Marvel film that had participants less fearful, the researchers compared their scores to those who watched the Marvel credits or a natural scene. The credits and the natural scene provided no reduction in phobia symptoms after viewing. Thus, the team concluded that Spider-Man and Ant-Man aren't just incredibly good at fighting the intergalactic bad guys, they're also beneficial for those suffering specific insect phobias.

Notably, they suggest that because of the "fun" nature of Marvel films -- and the fact they are such a huge part of modern pop culture -- may reduce some of the stigmas associated with treatment and therapy of these phobias.

The team is now looking at how they can improve the effects of their Marvel-based treatment option. Their next study will again assess the effect of watching Marvel movies on the brain, with a focus on how it may benefit those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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