The “Eek!” Factor: Most Common Reactions to Pests

For some people, mice and rats are considered pets. For others, they’re pests that elicit shrieks and balancing acts on chairs. The same can be said of certain spiders and snakes. That is to say, reactions to animals and insects typically considered pests vary a great deal. Some are considered nuisances, while others can elicit enough fear in some individuals that a phobia of them has earned its own scientific name.

What leads one individual to panic and squash upon spotting a spider while another calmly transfers the insect outside? Perhaps it’s the frequency, or rarity, of sightings for different pests in different areas of the country. Or maybe it’s prior experience dealing with a particular pest. Whatever the case, diverse reactions to pests certainly begs many questions, and we set out to answer a few.

With that in mind, we at Pest Strategies conducted a survey to learn more about how individuals react when they encounter pests. First, we analyzed the data to determine which pests are most likely to lead to the strongest emotional reactions. And then more specifically, we asked respondents, “Which pest causes the strongest emotional reaction in you?” 

Main Findings

First we analyzed the data to find out which pest caused the strongest reaction from respondents. We compiled the data by state. Spotting a cockroach causes the strongest emotional reaction in a total of 34 states. From New York to California, Texas to Montana, these pests cause the most dread when spotted with a total of 30% of respondents choosing them over all the others.

The second most commonly named, at just 17.3%, were rodents such as mice and rats. Spiders came in third, with 14.3% while gnats (1.1%) and termites (1.2%) were the two pests that were least likely to elicit a strong emotional reaction. When we think about it, size seems to be a factor in determining how strong of a reaction one will have. Cockroaches and rodents are significantly bigger than gnats and termites.

Next, we wanted to know what people’s first reaction is to seeing the pests they have the strongest feelings towards. While respondents noted a wide range of reactions, the top five were: feeling gross or grossed out (21.5%), searching for something to kill the pest with (16.7%), running away (14.3%), jumping in fright (13.2%), and feeling slightly annoyed (12.8%). Interestingly, 3.8% of respondents noted that their first reaction to seeing a pest is delight. Perhaps they are in the camp of people who have pet mice, rats, or spiders. Note, we’ve never heard of a pet cockroach and by the results in this survey we can see why.

We asked respondents what their response is to seeing a pest. This is different than the previous question in that this was focused on actions rather than emotions. It’s asking what they inevitably do with the pest.

When looking at the response data by state, the most common to seeing a pest was by far to crush it (31 states) while calling pest control was the first choice for only one state: New Hampshire. Even in states such as South Dakota, where the most commonly despised pest was one that necessitates professional pest control services (termites), the most common response was to spray them with something.

Similarly, in states such as Delaware and Kansas, where bed bugs were the most likely to elicit the strongest emotional reaction, the most common tactic for handling the pest was to simply crush it. Given the significant property damage that termites and bed bugs can cause, as well as the difficulty involved in eliminating infestations, individuals in these states are still more likely to attempt to handle the pests themselves rather than call the professionals.

Looking at the data overall, beyond just by state, there were a few interesting findings as well. The most common response was to crush it (27.4%), followed by spraying it with something (21.8%), ask someone else to kill it (14.8%), capture and release it outside (10.8%), and throw something at it (8.2%).

Finally, we wanted to see how responses differed between men and women and we found there were some key differences in how they handled the pests. Out of male respondents, 32.8% said they would crush the pest, versus just 21.7% of female respondents. On the other hand, women were more likely to ask someone else to kill the pest (24.9%) compared to men (5.6%). Men were also much more likely to spray something at the pest (23.9%) compared to women (19.5%).

Other Interesting Findings

Despite arachnophobia, a fear of spiders, being somewhat common, only two states said spiders were the most likely to elicit the strongest reaction: Wyoming and Missouri. In fact, just as many states identified mosquitoes as eliciting the strongest emotional response. Mosquitoes are a tolerable nuisance for most Americans, but Alaska and Louisiana residents appear to feel more strongly about these pests. Granted mosquitoes are known to carry dangerous diseases in many countries, but the U.S. is not among them. This begs the question of why they might be particularly distasteful to some of our respondents. It may be that they are more populous in these states, particularly in outdoor areas of the home, such as the backyard.

Methodology

Between November 3 and 5, 2021, we surveyed 3,557 people in the U.S. Respondents were asked three different questions regarding their reactions to pests and how they handle such encounters. In addition, there were two demographic questions: which state they lived in and their preferred gender. Gender was dichotomized as either male or female, with a third option of “Prefer not to say.” Finally, at least one respondent from each of the 50 states, meaning the entire country, was represented in our survey pool.