Phobias make us see feared objects as being bigger

Phobias make us see feared objects as being bigger

By Liz Lockhart

If you have a phobia then this report is for you, although you may find it difficult reading particularly if you are arachnophobic.  You can read more about fears and phobias here. New research suggests that the bigger the fear that a phobic experiences when seeing their object of dread, the bigger that object will appear in their perception of it.

The study was conducted by the Ohio State University, led by professor of psychology Michael Vasey.  Vasey and fellow researchers feel that when considering a fear of spiders, this altered perception does not necessarily hamper daily life, however, for people with a fear of needles, for example, this perception could result in the avoidance of needed health care.

In order to help those who want to overcome their fears, the researchers sought to find a better understanding of how a phobia affects the perception of objects of fear.  They hope to help professional caregivers to design more effective treatments.

Vasey said ‘If one is afraid of spiders, and by virtue of being afraid of spiders one tends to perceive spiders as bigger than they really area, that may feed the fear, foster that fear, and make it difficult to overcome. When it comes to phobias, it’s all about avoidance as a primary means of keeping oneself safe.’

‘As long as you avoid, you can’t discover that you’re wrong, and you’re stuck.  So to the extent that perceiving spiders as bigger than they really are fosters fear and avoidance, it then potentially is part of this cycle that feeds the phobia that leads to its persistence.’

Vasey added ‘We’re trying to understand why phobias persist so we can better target treatments to change those reasons they persist.’

In the study 57 participants with a self-reported spider phobia were investigated by the researchers.  The brave individuals interacted with five different types of tarantulas over a period of eight weeks.  The tarantulas varied in size from approximately 1 inch in length to 6 inches long.

The participants stood 12 feet away for an uncovered glass tank which contained the spiders.  They were then asked to get closer to the tank and when then stood next to the tank they were then asked to move the spider round the tank with an 8-inch probe.  Later in the study they were asked to do this but by using a shorter probe.

The participants were asked to report on the extent of their fear when they performing these acts.  This was rated on a scale of 0-100 depending on subjective units of distress.  They were also asked to report on their specific fear of spiders, panic symptoms during this experiment and any thoughts which they may have on fear reduction including future exposure to spiders.

The last thing that the participants were asked to do was to estimate the size of the spiders.  This was when they couldn’t see the spider anymore.  They were asked to draw a straight line on a card to indicate the overall length of the spider from the front to back tips of its legs.

The researchers found that the higher the stress experience whist encountering the spider, the larger the estimated length of the spider was.  Likewise, an association between a perception of larger spiders was found in the participants who had higher levels of anxiety and panic symptoms, and the participants who had the strongest fear of spiders.

Vasey said ‘It would appear from that result that fear is driving or altering the perception of the feared object, in this case a spider.  We already knew fear and anxiety alter thoughts about the feared thing.  For example, the feared outcome is interpreted as being more likely than it really is.  But this study shows that even perception is altered by fear.  In this case, the feared spider is seen as being bigger and that may serve as a maintaining factor for the fear.’

‘Ultimately we are interested in identifying predictors of relapse so we can better measure when a person is done with treatment,’ Vasey concluded.

Vasey is also a director of research for the psychology department’s Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic. 

The study can be found in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders 

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