February 24, 2012
The Bigger The Phobia, The Larger The Spider
According to new research, the bigger the person's arachnophobia, the more likely they perceive the spider is bigger than it really is.
During the study, participants who feared spiders were asked to undergo five encounters with live spiders, and provide size estimates of the spiders after those encounters.
They found that the more afraid they said they were of spiders, the larger they estimated the spiders to be.
"If one is afraid of spiders, and by virtue of being afraid of spiders one tends to perceive spiders as bigger than they really are, that may feed the fear, foster that fear, and make it difficult to overcome," Michael Vasey, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study, said in a press release.
The study included 57 participants who self-identified themselves has having arachnophobia, a fear of spiders.
Each participant interacted at specific time points over a period of eight weeks with five different varieties of tarantulas, varying in size from about 1- to 6-inches long.
The study participants began their encounters with the eight-legged creatures at 12 feet from the tank, and were asked to approach the spider.
Once they were standing next to the tank, they were asked to guide the spider around the tank by touching it with an 8-inch probe.
Researchers were asking the participants throughout the encounters about how afraid they were feeling on a scale of 0 to 100.
After the encounters, participants completed additional self-report measures of their specific fear of spiders, any panic symptoms they experienced, and thoughts about fear reduction and future spider encounters.
The researchers then asked the participants to estimate the size of the spiders by drawing a single line on an index card indicating the length of the creature they encountered.
The results showed that the higher average peak ratings of distress during the spider encounters associated with estimates that the spiders were larger than they really area.
"It would appear from that result that fear is driving or altering the perception of the feared object, in this case a spider," Vasey said.
He said scientists already knew fear and anxiety alter thoughts about what is being feared, but this study shows that even perception is altered by fear.
The researchers hope to further their studies in order to find new knowledge that will help enhance treatment for people with various phobias.
The works suggests that fear not only alters one's perception of what they are afraid of, but also can influence a person's automatic attitude towards an object.
The study was published in the recent issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.
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