Ben-Gurion University researchers have found that spiders appear larger to arachnophobes (people who fear spiders) than to those who have no special fear of the eight-legged creatures.
A study showed that self-described arachnophobes estimated the size of spiders as significantly greater than participants without such fear. However, the fear was species-specific, in that arachnophobes perceived the size of other creatures, such as wasps and butterflies, about the same as other people.
It was left undetermined, though, whether it is fear that affects size perception, or size perception that causes the fear.
The BGU study was inspired by an actual spider incident in Prof. Avishai Henik’s cognitive neuropsychology lab. Dr. Noga Cohen and Dr. Tali Leibovich, then doctoral candidates, noticed a spider crawling on Leibovich’s desk.
Leibovich, who is afraid of spiders, asked her colleague to “take care” of the spider. Cohen was puzzled by the fearful reaction, since it was a small one, and nothing to be afraid of.
But Leibovich unnacountably insisted it was big—even though both were looking at the same insect. What, they wondered, could explain the difference in perceptions…?