People with arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, tend to see the creatures bigger than they actually are, according to a new study.
Tali Leibovich, a researcher in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev in Israel, said that the study participants, who were highly fearful of spiders, appeared to overestimate their size.
In the study – published Thursday (Jan. 21) in the journal Biological Psychology the researchers conducted an experiment to find out whether arachnophobia truly influences people’s perception of those creepy-crawlies.
Researchers gave eighty female students (from BGU) a questionnaire and asked them to rate their level of spider-phobia. Then, they only took twelve students (or the top twenty percent) with high arachnophobia and thirteen students (or the bottom twenty percent) who said they were unafraid of spiders.
The students were then shown various photos on a computer that had a sliding scale, with the photo of a lamb at one end and the photo of a butterfly at the other The images that the students were shown included: butterflies, birds, and spiders. Each participant had to place the animals on the sliding scale in terms of size. They also had to rate the photo as unpleasant or pleasant.
Based on the results, each study participant found the picture of the spiders unpleasant. However only the students with high arachnophobia overestimated the size of the spiders, the researchers found.
In a second experiment, the researchers asked sixty-four female students to use the same program, but this time, the pictures included beetles, wasps, along with the butterfly and spider images. Surprisingly, the group with a high fear of spiders did not overestimate the size of the wasps, even though they rated them as unpleasant, according to the researchers.
The results may indicate that unpleasantness alone does not necessarily change the perception of size. It actually shows that emotion can alter people’s size estimation when it comes to spiders, the researchers said.
According to Leibohe, it is still unclear whether the size disturbance causes the fear, or the fear sets off the size disturbance. Further researches will be needed to those questions – and may then also be used to develop treatment for various phobias, Leibohe said.
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