Spiders, Fear, and Size

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(Image credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

Questions and Questionnaires About Fear of Spiders
compiled by Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research staff

Here is one way to measure people’s fear of spiders: Post flyers seeking individuals who are very afraid of spiders, and who are willing to be paid a small amount of cash to participate in a research project, said project turning out to be the repeated answering of survey questions before and during the following activities:

(1) approaching a live spider in an uncovered glass tank, initially standing 12 feet away from the tank.

(2) coming right up to the tank and using an eight-inch stick to guide the spider hither and thither for a marathonic two minutes.

(3) using a 5.5-inch stick to guide the spider thither and hither during a two-minute eternity.

(4) estimating as exactly as possible the spider’s size (by drawing a line on a card “indicating the length of the spider from the tips of its front legs to the tips of its back legs”).

(5) returning in a few weeks to do this same sequence of four procedures again with the “familiar” spider but also with an unfamiliar spider.

(6) returning a few weeks later to do everything yet again, this time with one familiar spider and two unfamiliar spiders, the spiders all being tarantulas of five distinct varieties chosen “because of their reputation for docile temperament and because of the distinct differences in sizes and appearance”.

In 2012, Michael Vasey and five colleagues at Ohio State University did exactly this, gathering data from 57 arachnophobic students, then publishing a report in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

The Fear of Spiders Questionnaire (1995)
Vasey’s team drew on the work of earlier spider-fear analysts. To measure fear, they made their spider-fearful volunteers fill out, repeatedly, the “Fear of Spiders Questionnaire” created in 1995 by Jeff Szymanski and William O’Donohue of Northern Illinois University, published in Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, vol. 26, no. 1, 1995, pp. 31–34.

The FSQ presents 18 tell-us-which-of-these-you-feel-right-now statements, the last of which is: “If I saw a spider now, I would probably break out in a sweat and my heart would beat faster”.

The Spider Phobia Questionnaire (1984)
The FSQ is a quasi-descendant of the Spider Phobia Questionnaire (SPQ) developed in 1984 by Fraser Watts and Robert Sharrock of the MRC Applied Psychology Unit linked to Cambridge University, and documented in “Questionnaire Dimensions of Spider Phobia,” Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 22, no. 5, 1984, pp. 575-580. The now-ancient SPQ asks 43 questions, many of which are rather pointed: “Would you know how to cope with spiders in the bath?”

What Vasey Found
The estimate-the-size-of-the-tarantula experiments produced a clear result, say Vasey and colleagues. The people who indicated they were most frightened also gave the most exaggerated tarantula-length estimates. The researchers summed the whole thing up in the title of their report:

“It Was As Big As My Head, I Swear!: Biased Spider Size Estimation in Spider Phobia,” Michael W. Vasey, Michael R. Vilensky, Jacqueline H. Heath, Casaundra N. Harbaugh, Adam G. Buffington, and Russell H. Fazio, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, vol. 26, no. 1, January 2012, pp. 20–24. (Thanks to Leiran Biton for bringing this to our attention.) The report explains:

The current study tested the association between fear and perception in spider phobic individuals within the context of a treatment outcome study. Participants completed 5 post-treatment Behavioral Approach Tasks (BATs) in which they encountered a live spider and were asked to provide spider size estimates. Consistent with predictions, results indicated that high levels of fear were associated with magnified perception of phobic stimuli. Specifically, we found a significant positive correlation between size estimates and self-reported fear while encountering spiders.

The “Itsy Bitsy Spider” Assessment (2016)
More recently, a research trio pursued the how-big-does-it-seem question: “Itsy Bitsy Spider? Valence and Self-Relevance Predict Size Estimation,” Tali Leibovich, Noga Cohen, and Avishai Henik, Biological Psychology, vol. 121, 2016, pp. 138-145. (Thanks to Tony Tweedale for bringing this to
our attention.) The authors, at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and the University of Western Ontario, Canada, explain:

In Experiment 1, participants who were highly fearful of spiders and participants with low fear of spiders rated the size and unpleasantness of spiders and other neutral animals (birds and butterflies). We found that although individuals with both high and low fear of spiders rated spiders as highly unpleasant, only the highly fearful participants rated spiders as larger than butterflies. Experiment 2 included additional pictures of wasps (not self-relevant, but unpleasant) and beetles. The results of this experiment replicated those of Experiment 1 and showed a similar bias in size estimation for beetles, but not for wasps. Mediation analysis revealed that in the high-fear group both relevance and valence influenced perceived size, whereas in the low-fear group only valence affected perceived size.

Detail from the study “Itsy Bitsy Spider? Valence and Self-Relevance Predict Size Estimation.”

Virtual Reality and the Menacing Spider Size Question
In addition to the several attempts to measure and understand the phenomenon, there was at least one technology-based effort to treat the phenomenon as a problem and to treat that problem:

“Effectiveness of Virtual Reality Exposure in the Treatment of Arachnophobia Using 3D Games,” Stéphane Bouchard, Sophie Côté, Julie St-Jacques, Geneviève Robillard, and Patrice Renaud, Technology and Health Care, vol. 14, no. 1, 2006, pp. 19-27. The authors, at the University of Québec and the University of Ottawa, Canada, report:

[T]reatments ranged from “a small black spider moving fast on the table and chair” to “a small room with a giant tarantula (the size of a dog) walking towards the participants”.... These promising results suggest that therapy using virtual reality exposure via a modiļ¬ed computer game is useful in the treatment of arachnophobia.

Menace in the 90s
Leibovich, Cohen, and Henik were themselves following the footsteps of a 1990s study full of looming and menace:

“The Looming of Spiders: The Fearful Perceptual Distortion of Movement and Menace,” John H. Riskind, Roger Moore, and Laurie Bowley, Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 33, 1995, pp. 171–178. The authors, at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, explain:

The current study examined the relation between the perception that fearstimuli are looming and fearful cognitive distortions. As hypothesized, high-fear-of-spider [subjects] were significantly more likely than lowfear [subjects] to imagine that a spider in a room would move rapidly and selectively to them in proximity, rather than towards three other individuals in the same physical space.

Detail from the study “The Looming of Spiders: The Fearful Perceptual Distortion of Movement and Menace.”


This article is republished with permission from the May-June 2017 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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