Caution: Objects May Appear Larger Than They Really Are

I am terrified of cockroaches. The high-pitched-screaming, jumping-on-a-chair, shaking-in-my-boots kind of terrified. Before my department moved into the lovely facility I work in now, the labs were located in a rather dilapidated building that was infested with South American cockroaches. They usually hung out in the autoclave room, but every so often they would venture out for a joyride in the elevator. After discovering this the hard way, I exclusively took the stairs. 

Phobias like this are very common, and for the most part are harmless. But in some cases they can be extremely detrimental. Agoraphobia prevents people from leaving their homes and living a normal life. Aichmophobia (or trypanophobia) refers to the fear of needles, and can lead to people avoiding the medical care that they need. Understanding the basis of these morbid fears is crucial to finding a way to help the people living with them.

In a paper published this week in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, researchers at the Ohio State University showed that arachnophobic individuals have an overblown idea of the size of the spiders they’re so afraid of.

In the study, the authors placed individuals in a room with a tarantula. The spider was enclosed in a glass case, and over time the subject was asked to approach the spider. Once they reached the case, they then used an eight-inch probe to get the spider to move around the tank. Throughout the task fear was measured on a scale of 0-100.

When asked to estimate the size of the spider from front leg to back (by drawing a line on a piece of paper) there was a strong correlation between fear and an exaggeration of the spider’s size. Those that were afraid genuinely thought the spider was larger than it really was.

Certainly this research is interesting, but I am left with the question: Why does something appearing larger make it more terrifying? Especially since the perceived size is still relatively small, and the spider is highly unlikely to maim or even kill you. That said, the thought of a giant cockroach is giving me the heeby-jeebies right now.

Sweet dreams- see you tonight under the covers.

Lead author on the study Michael Vasey has an idea: “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.”

So whereas the spider appearing bigger may not be what is triggering the arachnophobia, it is exacerbating it. This leads a person to avoid spiders (or needles, or large spaces) and therefore the phobia propagates inside their mind.

But perhaps there are some more positive outcomes from this research. I’m sure there a few fellows out there wondering if this misconception of size is dependent on phobia, or could perhaps be transferred to other, more, ahem, pleasurable situations. I will keep my eye on the literature, chaps.

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Katie Pratt is a graduate student in Molecular Biology at Brown University. She has a passion for science communication, and in an attempt to bring hardcore biology and medicine to everyone, she blogs jargon-free at www.katiephd.com. Follow her escapades in the lab and online on Twitter.

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Miss a previous edition of Mind the Gap? Shame on you! Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered:

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4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. @PhD2Consulting

    wrote on February 24, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Trypanophobia

  2. Veena Thomas

    wrote on February 24, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Trypanophobia

  3. alan@benchfly

    wrote on February 24, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    We've got a winner!

  4. Donna Foster Myer

    wrote on February 24, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    It seems to me that another aspect to many phobias is number. I, for example, am not terribly afraid of cockroaches. Yet … in grad school one of my friends was doing nerve transmissiono work on cockroaches & kept inviting me to her lab. Well – I went ONCE. Her doctoral advisor propogated cockroaches – in this big table top sized lucite box – about 12 inches high – were a gazillion cockroaches. Even today – which is some 43 years later kiddies – just writing that has my skin crawling. I find that I react the same way to ants or flocks of gulls at the beach. One little fishie bimping against my toes is fascinating but many more & I see myself dashing for the beach with my knees coming WAY out of the water. Wonder what the connection is between mental increase in size of one frear causing critter and true increase in numbers of normal size critters. Even contemplating ME + "many" cows or "many" rabbits brings forth a strong desire to flee …. ahhh – bye bye now.

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