If you’re one of those people who has a phobia of spiders, you’re ‘more likely’ to see them, according to research.
When I say ‘one of those people’, chances are it’s likely.
Yeah ok, I get it, they’re more afraid of us than we are of them, but it doesn’t help curb the fear does it?
According to LiveScience, reserachers wanted to analyse the details which automatically most attract people’s attention – for example, if there’s a spider in the room, those who are most spider-fearing, will likely be the ‘first to point it out’.
Past research has suggested this happens because our attention systems are ‘hardwired to notice threats’, but other research suggested our attention is simply drawn to details we find most important on a personal level.
Behavioural psychologist Helena Purkis from the University of Queensland in Australia along with colleagues at the University of Sussex in the UK, compared how much attention was paid ‘not only to pictures of spiders, but also images taken from Doctor Who‘.
Ms Purkis said:
The idea is that in any environment, attention will be allocated in order of priority to the most important stimuli first, so that these can be processed and responded to.
Things that are very loud or bright automatically grab our attention. We are interested in whether other, less intense stimuli that are nonetheless salient can automatically draw attention. This tells us about the way the brain prioritises the stimuli in our environment.
Interestingly, if you’re scared of spiders you perceive them to be bigger than they are.
The Science Daily report, in a study, published by Journal of Anxiety Disorders, participants who feared spiders were asked to undergo five encounters with live spiders – tarantulas actually.
They then had to provide size estimates of the spiders – the more afraid the participants said they were, the larger they estimated the spiders had been.
Michael Vasey, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study 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 are, which may feed the fear, foster the fear and make it difficult to overcome.
When it comes to phobias, it’s all about avoidance as a primary means of keeping safe. As long as you avoid, you can’t discover 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 which leads to its persistence. We’re trying to understand why phobias persist so we can better target treatments to change those reasons they persist.