Why Are We So Scared of Bugs?

Discover why tiny creepy crawlies cause a fear response in so many of us.

Mar 27, 2023By Donna Hobson
why are we scared of bugs

When we look at a fearsome predator such as the grizzly bear, many of us notice how "cute" they are and imagine cuddling up to their fluffy bodies. But look at a tiny insect, such as a cockroach, and we experience fear. In fact, insects and spiders represent one of the top fears for human beings.

While some insects could cause us harm through stings or bites, many pose no threat to us at all. So why are we so scared of these tiny creatures? Join us and explore the reasons for this sometimes-irrational seeming fear.

What Is a Fear Of Insects?

fear of spiders scared bugs crawling

The proper name for the fear of insects is entomophobia, though this term describes a severe phobia rather than a moderate fear.

Our fear of bugs differs from that of other animals, such as lions or sharks. In the latter instances, we worry that these mighty predators could physically overpower us and leave us helpless. Still, we're not likely to worry about a bug getting the better of us in a fight.

Instead, our fear may stem from an evolutionary trait, as demonstrated in a study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology. This study involved participants looking at images of potentially harmful creatures, such as spiders and snakes, interspersed with non-threatening pictures of flowers and plants.

The reviews showed that participants responded to spiders and snakes far more quickly than the photographs of flowers, which indicates that we are hardwired to seek out any potential threats and act accordingly.

Some Bugs Can Harm Us

black widow spider venomous bite

Many researchers believe that evolution led us to develop a fear of insects, spiders, and snakes to avoid encounters with these creatures that could be harmful to us. They might be small, but several spiders and snakes possess enough venom to harm a human; in extreme instances, even one bite can be fatal.

For example, the neurotoxins present in a black widow's bite can be enough to hospitalize a human. At the same time, the venom of the brown recluse spider can kill human tissue. Fire ants are believed to have one of the most painful bites in the world; parasitic insects carry diseases, and bees and wasps have a painful sting that causes allergic reactions in around 5-8% of people.

Although insects may look harmless, many of them are not. Whether it's a painful bite or a deadly disease, there are many ways that insects can seriously compromise human health (mosquitos are the most prominent human killers in the world). So, it's pretty understandable that we would develop a fear response to protect ourselves.

Still, there are a vast number of insects that pose no threat to us at all, but we're still scared of them. Here's why:

They Compromise our Cleanliness

maggots eating meat

Seeing a bug inside our homes often causes a higher fear reaction than seeing the same bug outside. Our homes are our safe spaces, and none of us want to encounter intruders who could compromise our cleanliness or health. Bugs spread several diseases, and if you get an infestation in your home, it can compromise your health.

Not only do bugs threaten our wellbeing, but they can compromise us financially too. Whether it's an infestation, property damage, or crop decimation, bugs cause billions of dollars of damage yearly in the USA alone.

We Confuse Disgust with Fear

crawling cockroaches close up view

Researchers use the term "rejection response" to describe how our disgust towards bugs can lead us to fear them. This refers to our tendency to keep anything disgusting or unfamiliar at arm's length to protect ourselves. For example, we are disgusted by rotting food or feces, which means we avoid these substances which could otherwise cause us harm. And the same might be true for bugs - we are disgusted by them, so our brain creates a fear response so that we avoid contact.

Part of our disgust response is undoubtedly linked to the fact that bugs often feed on other materials that we find repulsive, such as rotting foods or feces, which adds further weight to our belief that these are "unclean" animals.

Bugs Look Entirely Different to Us

giant waterbug with eggs on back

If an alien landed in our backyard, the first thing we would feel is fear. This is because the alien would look entirely different from us, making us unsure about its behaviors, motives, etc. Humans and bugs do not share close evolutionary bonds, so these little creatures appear alien-like to us and trigger a fear response.

Large Groups Challenge Our Idea of Individuality

Insect swarm

Another theory that researchers put forward in response to the human fear of bugs is an overwhelm of the psyche that damages people's internal belief systems. Individuality is a prized value for most humans - it's why we have fashion, tattoos, hobbies, and languages - we're all seeking a way to express our uniqueness.

When we see a swarm or colony of insects, we witness many creatures working together as one unit. And scientists believe this could lead us to question how much we can achieve by ourselves. If something causes us to question our intrinsic value system, it can be an anxiety-inducing experience, which may be one of the reasons why we fear bugs.

Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.