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Arachnophobia Makes Spiders Seem Bigger than they Really Are, Study Finds

Feb 24, 2016 07:30 AM EST
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Spiders don't seem so itsy bitsy to people who are afraid of them, according to a new study from Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev in Israel. Researchers say their findings may help treat certain phobias. 

"We found that although individuals with both high and low arachnophobia rated spiders as highly unpleasant, only the highly fearful participants overestimated the spider size," Tali Leibovich, one of the study researchers from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at BGU, said in the university's release.

The idea for the study came from a real-life experience, when Leibovich -- who has arachnophobia -- asked her colleague Noga Cohen, a graduate student of clinical-neuropsychology at BGU, to get rid of a "big" spider crawling nearby. Cohen thought the request was unusual, as the spider looked "small" in her eyes. But how could this be when they were both looking at the same spider? 

So researchers decided to investigate whether arachnophobia influences people's perceptions of spiders. They chose to focus on females, who, on average, fear spiders more than men. 

For the first experiment, scientists gave 80 female students a questionnaire to rate their levels of arachnophobia. However, only the top 12 students who said they were very afraid of spiders and the bottom 13 who said they were unafraid were chosen. 

The students were then presented with a series of photos of birds, butterflies and spiders, and instructed to rate how large or small they were. Each participant was also asked to rate how pleasant each image was. 

While every participant found the pictures of spiders unpleasant, only those with arachnophobia overestimated how big the creepy crawlies were. 

In a second experiment, researchers added images of wasps, beetles and butterflies joined spiders in the line up to test whether other feared critters also altered a person's perception of size. 

This time around, those that fear spiders rated wasps as more unpleasant than did the low-fear group. Surprisingly, however, the highly fearful group didn't overestimate the size of the wasps. This suggests unpleasantness alone cannot account for bias in size estimation, and that emotion can greatly influence how people perceive the size of spiders. 

"This study also raises more questions such as: Is it fear that triggers size disturbance, or maybe the size disturbance is what causes fear in the first place?" Leibovich added in a statement. "Future studies that attempt to answer such questions can be used as a basis for developing treatments for different phobias."

Their findings were recently published in the journal Biological Psychology.

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