Virtual Reality Can Help Arachnophobes See Spiders as Less Terrifying

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People who have spider phobias overestimate how dangerous getting up close and personal with an arachnid really is. In recent years, research has found that people who are afraid of spiders view them as larger than they really are, and larger than non-arachnophobes estimate. However, a new study indicates that this overestimation can be tweaked using virtual reality.

The study, published in Biological Psychology, tested 61 people—almost all women—41 who were arachnophobic and 20 who were spider-ambivalent ((though only 22 in the phobic and 19 in the control groups made it through the whole study). They were asked to estimate the size of a live spider and report their fear levels in response to the spider moving toward them on a special sliding plate. Participants then went through four 5-minute virtual reality experiences where they were exposed to a virtual spider. A few weeks later, they did the behavioral avoidance test again, rating their fear of the spider and how big it looked to them.

Both groups estimated the spider to be bigger than it was in reality, but people who were specifically afraid of spiders were worse at estimating actual spider size. The phobic group estimated the spider to be more than 80 percent larger than it was, compared to an average 40 percent bigger estimated by the non-phobic group. Throughout the treatments, people reported less and less fear of the virtual spider. The phobic participants overestimated the spider’s size by a smaller margin with each subsequent virtual exposure, while the non-phobic group’s overestimation didn’t change significantly. After treatment, the phobic group’s perceptual bias decreased by 15 percent.

The study almost exclusively examined women, and didn’t have a control group of phobics who did not experience the virtual reality spider, which might color the results. However, it suggests that virtual reality can affect how people experience the real world, potentially helping people work through phobias.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]