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Sizing Up Spiders

February 29, 2016

Does a fear of spiders warp our perception of their size?

Transcript

Wolf spider Eugene E. Nelson, Bugwood.org CC BY 3.0 US 5366596-LGPT

How big does this wolf spider look to you? (Eugene E. Nelson, Bugwood.org CC BY 3.0 US 5366596-LGPT)

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Eight-legged exaggeration. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Neuroscientist Tali Leibovich is really afraid of spiders, so when she saw one in her lab at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, she asked a colleague to remove it.

TALI LEIBOVITZ (now at the University of Western Ontario):

And she said ‘why are you so afraid of it, it’s small?’, and I said, ‘no, look at it, it’s huge.’ And she said ‘no, it’s small.’ And we started arguing.

HIRSHON:

Their friendly disagreement inspired the researchers to study differences in how people perceive the eight-legged arthropods. They report in Biological Psychology that arachnophobes overestimated the size of spider images, rating them larger than butterflies. But their non-fearful peers didn’t exaggerate. Leibovich says the results are consistent with other studies showing we tend to magnify the size of things we feel strongly about – whether positive or negative. And understanding how exaggeration develops could lead to better treatments for phobias. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

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