Those of you who live in the UK might have seen a news item talking about how a spider's bite almost cost a woman her left arm (watch out, spider pictures on the other side of that link). The way it is reported makes the story the stuff of nightmares. As a result today there might be a few more people scared of spiders than yesterday. I could try to reassure you all by saying that it is an exceedingly rare event, but I know you are likely to still be scared. Don't get me wrong, I know you will believe what I am saying. The thing is, you will still feel scared thinking that a spider might creep up while you sleep, bite you, and make your arm to swell up like a balloon.
So why is that, then? Why is it that even though we know something is very rare it still feels scary? On the other hand, why are we so not scared of stuff that is more likely to harm us like smoking or driving our cars?
We folks appear to be terrible at gauging risks. We are hard-wired to get out of the way of sabre tooth tigers but we are not great at dodging those burgers or keeping our boozing under control. Stuff that harms us slowly is always less scary than stuff that could hurt us instantly. Also, terrible stuff we read about in the news is much more scary than terrible stuff that happens all the time. The story of the spider is in the news because it is sooo rare. Millions of people in Britain come into contact with spiders every day, of every week, of every month, of every year; yet we only hear about the one case in millions and millions that goes wrong. Sadly, every day more than 5 people die as a result of a traffic accident in Britain (2011 Dept of Transport stats). But you don't read about that, you read about the lady that got bit by the spider.
One of the key things to do when fighting a phobia is to catch the scary thoughts that pop into your head "spiders are dangerous" and try to replace them with the facts "spiders rarely bite and when they do it is very unlikely they will hurt you badly". Bruce Schneier is a risk expert and he writes about how awful we all are at judging risk and how to get better at it in his book Beyond Fear. His blog, Schneier on risk, is worth checking out.
I think that if we are going to be afraid of something might as well be afraid of something that is actually scary, like Russell doing Gangnam Style.