The more afraid a person is of a spider, the bigger that individual perceives the spider to be, new research suggests.

In the context of a fear of spiders, this warped perception doesn't necessarily interfere with daily living. But for individuals who are afraid of needles, for example, the conviction that needles are larger than they really are could lead people who fear injections to avoid getting the health care they need.

A better understanding of how a phobia affects the perception of feared objects can help clinicians design more effective treatments for people who seek to overcome their fears, according to the researchers.

In this study, participants who feared spiders were asked to undergo five encounters with live spiders -- tarantulas, in fact -- and then provide size estimates of the spiders after those encounters ended. The more afraid the participants said they were of the spiders, the larger they estimated the spiders had been.

"If one is afraid of spiders, and by virtue of being afraid of spiders one tends to perceive spiders as bigger than they really are, that may feed the fear, foster that fear, and make it difficult to overcome," said Michael Vasey, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

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