Picture of a Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) taken by one of the authors in a Zoo in Australia. This species is typically considered as threatening but also beautiful by non-phobic people.

By Andras N. Zsido, Carlos M. Coelho, and Jakub Polák.

Read the article here.

Connectedness to nature has been shown to improve health, enhance mood, reduce stress, and promote well-being and happiness. However, worldwide urbanization means many people lose contact with nature including interaction with animals. Being remote from nature may lead to increased fear of some aspects of nature, such as snakes and spiders. However, simple, frequent exposures to neutral situations give people a sense of control and thus, prevent fears and phobias from developing even after a future harmful experience (e.g., a snakebite). In this research our aim was to understand whether increasing connectedness to nature can also help reduce fears of snakes and spiders in nature.

We tested whether nature relatedness could be a protective factor against developing snake and spider fears and phobias, which are among the most common anxiety disorders. Our participants (N=1071) rated pictures of snakes and spiders in terms of pleasantness, the strength of the evoked feeling, and how much they felt in control over the animal on the picture. We also measured individual differences in cognition, affect, and experiences people have with nature, and how fearful they were of snakes and spiders.

Our results lend further support to the notion that having experience with nature could play a vital role in determining whether someone develops an animal phobia or not. We found that longing to be close to nature and an engagement to protect natural resources – two critical factors of subjective relatedness to nature – older age, residing in a less urbanized environment, and male gender were associated with lower fear of snakes and spiders, and might be considered as protective factors against snake and spider phobias. People who spend more time in nature tend to recall experiences in the natural environment as positive ones. The pleasant experiences in nature could lead to increased environmental responsibility and connection to nature.

Our results suggest that facilitating a positive attitude towards nature by nature-related experiences and pro-environmental education may help prevent animal-related fears. In subjects who already suffer from animal phobia, increasing nature connectedness might be employed in psychotherapy.