Planning to catch the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe flick “Avengers: Endgame” coming to theaters this week? There’s new evidence that such movies may be more than just fun – they may actually enhance your mental resilience.
Two Israeli psychology professors – both Marvel superhero fans – exposed 424 subjects to seven-second “Spider-Man” and “Ant-Man” movie excerpts to see if this would result in a decrease in symptoms of spider phobia and ant phobia, respectively.
Fear of insects, mainly spiders, is considered one of the most common phobias.
Professors Menachem Ben-Ezra from Ariel University’s School of Social Work and Yaakov Hoffman from Bar-Ilan University’s department of social science found that indeed, a seven-second excerpt of a spider scene from “Spider-Man 2” reduced participants’ post-viewing spider phobia (arachnophobia) symptoms score relative to their pre-viewing score by 20%.
Similar symptom-lessening results were obtained regarding ant phobia (myrmecophobia) when the subjects screened a seven-second excerpt from “Ant-Man.”
Their experiment was based on exposure therapy, a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapeutic technique using neutral exposure to the phobic stimulus – meaning the exposure isn’t done in a positive or negative type of environment — combined with relaxation, mindfulness, or imagery exercises to help overcome an irrational fear.
But when a control group of participants in the Israeli study was queried about general insect phobia before and after viewing neutral seven-second excerpts from both films, there were no significant symptom reductions for insect phobia.
Ben-Ezra said that these results open a new direction in the efficacy of positive, as opposed to neutral, exposure in the form of a fantasy film. The movie provides a safe in vitro (controlled environment) instead of an in vivo environment with actual spiders or ants.
“These results suggest that a fun, available and in-vitro exposure may be very powerful,” Ben-Ezra said. In other words, exposure to Marvel’s “good ole Spidey” may be an optimal solution.
The study, accepted for publication in the Frontiers in Psychiatry abstract journal, could be of great interest in a year filled with Marvel releases: “Captain Marvel” in March, “Avengers: Endgame” in April, “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” in June, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in July, and “X-Men: New Mutants” in August.
“Incorporating exposure to short scenes from Marvel Cinematic Universe within a therapeutic protocol for such phobias may be robustly efficacious and enhance cooperation and motivation by rendering the therapy as less stigmatic,” write the authors.
Ben-Ezra and Hoffman said they believe that superhero movies are beneficial in other ways, too, helping feel people better about themselves and providing a contrast to hectic and stressful lives by showing us the true underlying spirit of confronting fears.
Ariel University students Lia Ring and Shani Pitcho-Prelorentzos also participated in carrying out the study.
The scientists’ next stage of research will examine how watching Marvel superhero movies could help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
So if you go this weekend to see Thor, Black Widow, Captain America and Bruce Banner figure out how to bring back their vanquished Avengers allies for an epic showdown with the evil demigod Thanos, you may be accomplishing much more than simply entertaining yourself.