Phobias Can Magnify Perception of the Feared Object

When afraid, people with spider phobias perceive spiders to be larger than they actually are

THURSDAY, March 1 (HealthDay News) -- Fear affects how perceptual information is processed and magnifies phobic stimuli, according to research published in the January issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

Michael W. Vasey, Ph.D., of The Ohio State University in Columbus, and colleagues evaluated the association between fear and perception in 57 individuals with spider phobias. Over a period of eight weeks, individuals underwent three sessions in which they completed one or more Behavioral Approach Tasks (BATs), which involved encountering a live spider in an uncovered glass tank. Following each BAT, participants were asked to fill out questionnaires to assess their fear, and then to estimate the size of the spider without looking at it.

The researchers found that, overwhelmingly, the level of fear correlated with magnified perception of phobic stimuli. There was a significant positive association between the size estimate and self-reported fear.

"These results suggest that high levels of fear are associated with magnified perception of phobic stimuli," the authors write. "These results further support the notion that fear is involved in the encoding and processing of perceptual information. The current study adds to this formulation by providing evidence for a link between size estimation and fear during a phobic encounter. To our knowledge, this is the first finding of this nature in the literature."

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