Your Instinct to Either Scream at or Squash a Bug Relies on 2 Factors—and Only 1 Is Fear

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My fondest New York City memory is also one of my first: when my first roommate, Emily, and I were shrieking while trying to attack a silverfish with a Swiffer and thus overcome our mutual phobia of bugs. It was hard to even see the barely-an-inch-big insect spindling across her room, but with enough frantic swatting, we were finally able to put it to bed forever. But then we paused, confused about whether we should clean up our dreaded foe (and if so, how?).

“No, leave the body,” Emily said darkly. “As a message to his friends.” Now whenever I see a silverfish, I just sigh, grab whatever shoe I’m least emotionally attached to, and…put it to bed, but unceremoniously and without all the fanfare.

I get strangely nostalgic about this every summer, since it's during the hotter seasons, I've found, that I encounter an influx of 'em, thus testing my waning phobia of bugs and how many I can tolerate in my space. And I've also found that fear is only one factor to consider for a person's reaction to bugs—whether it's immediate tears, reaching for spray, or calling for the help of a Real Adult. The way you handle the creepy-crawlies actually has a lot more to do with your tolerance for disgust.

Research suggests when it comes to unwanted pests, our mind tends to compound feelings of fear and disgust. High disgust sensitivity is strongly tied to spider phobia, for example. That extra element of perceived grossness that gets tacked onto fear is what changes the dynamic of how many people tend to react to bugs. Because yeah, they can be “scary,” but rationally speaking, you’re bigger than they are (unless you live in Australia).

People who can smash a spider with an open palm, remove a roach without blinking, or cup a beetle on the wall probably have a higher tolerance for disgust.

Reframed this way, people who can smash a spider with an open palm, remove a roach without blinking, or cup a beetle on the wall probably have a higher tolerance for disgust. It’s not really about the method here—it’s about the mood. It’s about being able to approach the pest calmly. Big shocker that my ex-best friend who has owned seven lizards to which she fed mealworms once suggested we olive oil a mouse out of a sticky trap (“um, no,” Emily told her incredulously, while typing out a Facebook SOS status, pulling at straws to find us help.)

Therein lies the middle ground between a calm demeanor and the decision to avoid the bug. The emotion of disgust is theorized to be an evolutionary survival device, because we would be in big, big trouble if we looked at a piece of molded mozzarella and thought, “mmm, looks delish.” Our go-to move in the face of revulsion is avoidance, because that’s supposed to keep us safe. So even if your disgust tolerance is medium high, you’re still not going to get, like, super intimate with the colony of ants congregating around a tortilla chip.

While it’s easy to regard disgust as the variable that determines how we handle indoor insects, it’s unclear what determines disgust sensitivity in the first place. One 2018 study suggests that factors like neuroticism, parental modeling, and fear of contracting disease prove to be inconclusive when gauging disgust sensitivity.

My hot take, though? You can build up your tolerance based on your surroundings.

Because I live in a city where rats scurry through the subways and pigeons poop on your head, I’m jaded. In fact, I told the last mouse that scurried out from under my oven, “You’re going to have to start paying rent.” With years' worth of time as my fear-disgust bootcamp, my tolerance has raised tremendously. I still can’t squash a cockroach, but I don't scream at the sight of them.

I will say, I was disgusted recently when a friend in San Francisco texted me nervously about how to deal with a bug in her apartment that she surely couldn't handle herself. Her response to my recommendation to take a Swiffer to it? “We don’t have one. We have a cleaner come every two weeks.”

I face-palmed. Ugh, rich people.

Okay, this gives me the icks, but in case you've ever wondered…a few bugs in your organic veggies won't kill you. On the flip side, here's how to get fruit flies off your fruit.

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