Augmented reality may help with arachnophobia

Swiss researchers developed a smartphone app to help people overcome a fear of spiders.

Maija Kappler 3 minute read September 21, 2021
spiders augmented reality

The University of Basel's Phobys app can help people overcome a fear of spiders. (University of Basel, MCN)

Would you use augmented reality (AR) to hang out with spiders?

It’s a tough proposition, especially for people with a spider phobia. But a new study from the University of Basel in Switzerland, has demonstrated that spider exposure via an AR app helped reduce people’s fear of arachnids.

A research team at the university developed an augmented reality app for smartphones called Phobys, which displays a realistic 3D spider on a real background. “It’s easier for people with a fear of spiders to face a virtual spider than a real one,” Anja Zimmer, lead author of the study, told the university’s news team.

The trial involved 66 people between the ages of 18 and 40 who were afraid of spiders, at either a clinical or subclinical level. They approached a real spider in a box, getting as close as they felt able. Then, over six weeks, two-thirds of group went through six half-hour training sessions with the Phobys app, where they gradually got closer to, and eventually interacted with, a virtual spider on-screen. The app had nine levels, each more intensive than the last, and at the end of each level people could rate their levels of fear and disgust. Researchers also added “game elements” to the app to help motivate people, including animation and sound effects that rewarded them when they made progress.

At the end of the study, the participants approached a real spider again. The people who had used the app were able to get closer to the spider than the control group, and “showed significantly less fear and disgust in the real-life spider situation,” the research claims.

“We report that repeated home-use of the stand-alone, smartphone-based, gamified AR exposure app was effective in the reduction of phobic fear in participants with fear of spiders,” the researchers wrote in the study, which was published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. Even people who used the app for less time than was suggested — 90 minutes instead of 180 minutes — found that “the fear of spiders was reduced at clinically relevant effect sizes.” (The study did note, though, that researchers couldn’t rule out the placebo effect as part of that result.)

The AR approach could be helpful and treating different kind of phobias, the researchers suggest.

“We see a great potential in our smartphone-based, stand-alone AR exposure app to act as a complementary tool for psychotherapy,” they wrote. The app is available for a free trial on Apple and Android phones, although the training that the study participants went through costs money.

Arachnophobia, or fear of spiders, is very common. Some researchers believe it’s actually a genetic, evolutionary fear: a German study found that babies as young as six months have negative reactions to spiders.