Arachnophobia — fear of spiders — is one of the most common phobias. Now a new study has found that arachnophobes may be overestimating the size of the spiders they see.
The researchers from Ben-Gurion University in Israel, had participants compare the size of different animals. The neutral animals were birds and butterflies; the aversive animal was, clearly, the spider.
Female participants first completed a questionnaire that measured their arachnophobia. They were split into two groups: unafraid and afraid.
The groups then looked at photos of the neutral and aversive subjects. Only those who were afraid of spiders overestimated the size of spiders compared to the images of butterflies.
The idea for the study came from the researchers’ personal experience. Tali Leibovich was in her office with her colleague and co-author of the paper, Noga Cohen, when a spider crawled across her desk. Leibovich, who is an arachnophobe herself, asked Cohen to get rid of the spider. Cohen was surprised at Leibovich’s reaction because, to her, the spider was small. Leibovich insisted that it was “huge.”
The pair also decided as part of the study to conduct an experiment that would see how dangerous animals would be perceived. The participants were shown an image of a wasp rather than a spider. Surprisingly, though we know wasps can hurt us, the participants didn’t overestimate the size of the wasp compared to the neutral animals.
While the study illustrates just how much our emotions and perceptions are tied, it doesn’t provide the whole picture.
“What we don’t know is what causes what,” Leibovich said. “We don’t know if we’re afraid of spiders because we perceive them as being bigger, or maybe because we perceive them as bigger in the first place, we become afraid of them.”
Leibovich said she hopes that others will research the topic further, which could help in treating arachnophobia.
“It’s a good first step,” she said.
“What we see is that it’s only one example of how each person perceives the world differently,” said Leibovich. “We all have our unique way. Even basic features can be manipulated by our emotions.”
Interestingly, Leibovich and Cohen never did agree on the size of the spider. However, Leibovich insists: “No spiders were harmed during this study.”