How to Be Less Afraid of Spiders
December 1, 2011 3 Comments
I’ve always thought that people who cheerfully tell you “it’s all in your head” when you’re confronted with a physical obstacle are just unrealistic jerks, but it turns out they may have a point. New research shows that “psychological resources” such as self-worth, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and social support can decrease the perceived size of threatening objects.
Threatening things are often perceptually exaggerated, such that they appear higher, closer, of greater duration, or more intense than they actually are. According to the Resources and Perception Model (RPM) psychosocial resources can prevent this exaggeration, leading to more accurate perception. Two studies tested RPM. Study 1 showed that the perceived closeness of a threatening object (a live tarantula) but not an innocuous object (a cat toy) was moderated by induced self-worth. Further, the more self-worth that participants experienced, the less close the tarantula appeared to them. Study 2 showed that greater levels of self-esteem reduced perceived height, but only among participants prevented from holding a protective handrail while looking down.
There are two somewhat broad, but important things the study hints at. First, given that we evolved to not die, it seems it would be a lot harder to trick yourself into being less afraid of a spider than it would be to trick yourself into being less afraid of a bad grade or social rejection. Therefore, any evidence that social and emotional skills can alter something as critical and deep-rooted as visual perception is further evidence of the effects social and emotional skills can have on behavioral and educational outcomes. If you’re a regular reader, feel free to say it with me. It’s time to do a better job teaching kids simple social and emotional skills.
Second, the idea that what we see is influenced by fear is a helpful reminder that every part of our lives is controlled by fear. Think about your lunch today. One could argue your lunch decisions were entirely driven by fears relating to health (scared of eating too many calories), money (scared of spending too much and being broke), time management (scared of going too far away and falling behind on work), or social perceptions (scared a co-worker will see you at that hole-in-the-wall restaurant). Many of these ordinary day-to-day fears are silly and don’t hold up to scrutiny (e.g. the anxiety you feel before meeting somebody new), but without being cognizant of them the anxiety they cause is hard to overcome.
Harber, K., Yeung, D., & Iacovelli, A. (2011). Psychosocial resources, threat, and the perception of distance and height: Support for the resources and perception model. Emotion, 11 (5), 1080-1090 DOI: 10.1037/a0023995