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Spiders Seem Much Bigger to Arachnophobes

Arachnophobes don't see the same spiders that the rest of us do, research suggests.

I remember very distinctly the moment when I became afraid of spiders and also the moment when I became unafraid of spiders. The first is easy: Circa elementary school I was at a friend's cottage on Lake Huron, when, over the course of playing tag or whatever, I rain face-on into a doorframe-spanning spider web with a giant honking hairy black spider right in the middle. It fucked me up.

The second is counterintuitive. Circa 2007, I was dozing in a trainyard and felt a faint prick or scratch on my ankle. I thought nothing of it until the next morning when I found myself scraping at a most peculiar black, ashy divot on said ankle. It didn't really feel like anything until another day had passed and my foot had begun to swell, itch, and ooze pus like a oversaturated sponge. Soon enough, from my shin down, the whole foot/ankle complex was beginning to more resemble an oozing sponge-basketball just deflated enough to the point of not being bouncy anymore. I noted with some alarm that my swollen ankle flesh had begun to sag around the top of my shoe.


I'd been bit by (probably) a brown recluse and it doesn't get much worse spiderwise. It was gross, but an antibiotic knocked the infection out quickly. Mostly, I'd experienced the abstract fear concretely and this seems to have nullified the abstract fear. I would prefer to not have that experience again, but I at least understand it now. After that, I stopped thinking about spiders as abstractly fearsome creatures or fearsome creatures at all. They were just another thing, even a normal thing.

My point is ultimately that I understand spider-fear very well but also understand something more like objective spider awareness. This difference between irrational fear and it's just a spider, according to an in-press paper in the journal Biological Psychology, is enough for those in the first camp to dramatically overestimate the size of spiders—in some cases even imagining them to be larger than butterflies.

"Imagine that while reading these lines, a spider crawls on your desk," the paper begins. "You might refer to it as small and harmless, while your spider-phobic co-worker would probably perceive it as huge and intimidating. These kinds of situations highlight the existence of individual differences in size estimation of unpleasant stimuli. They also raise the question of whether the pair of words 'huge' and 'intimidating' represents more than a figure of speech."

The paper describes two experiments, the first of which is pretty obvious. Take a group of people, some of who describe their spider fear as self-relevant (a phobia, basically) and some that don't, and show them pictures of spiders but also neutral creatures, like butterflies. The spider-fearful rated the spiders as larger than reality, which is as expected given the loads and loads of prior research examining this subject with spiders but also other negative things/fears, including but not limited to swastikas, heights, and snakes.

What this study adds comes in the second experiment, in which the spider-fearful were presented with a negative thing that wasn't a spider: a wasp. A wasp is clearly bad, but the subjects didn't have wasp phobias. Will the generalized or objective badness of the wasp have the same effect? Nope. The wasps were interpreted as being normal size with respect to a control group not afraid of spiders. So, we can conclude that the size distortions experienced by those with self-relevant fears don't bleed out into perceptual interpretations of everyday bad stuff.

I'm not sure this study adds a whole lot, but it remains an interesting topic that's relevant well beyond phobias and the perceived size of arachnids. Our emotions (and obsessions) lead us astray constantly and this is part of the whole mystery, isn't it? My world is different than your world, which is different from someone else's world. We agree in averages and this is usually good enough, but when our perceptions run wild, as in the case of body dysmorphia in anorexia and bulimia, the results can be quite dire.