Why Tarantulas Can Seem So Scary

It's not every day that social scientists use tarantulas in their experiments.

Professor Kent Harber brought unwitting Rutgers students into his lab. They were escorted into a semi-darkened room and asked to stand right in front of a table. Then the lights snapped on, revealing a huge hairy crawling tarantula a couple feet away.(There was no real danger: the spider was contained in a glass box, but it was big enough and close enough to have the desired effect.) Harber asked the students to estimate the exact distance, in feet and inches, between where they were standing and the tarantula.

The thing was, on the way into the room, Harber asked a random half of the students to pause and recall a moment of personal success. Still others were to think about a time they'd failed at something. Harber didn't ask the students the specifics of what they were thinking about – he just asked them to place it in their mind before they walked into the dark room. The students who'd entered the lab after recalling a positive experience were surprisingly accurate in estimating the distance. They were usually off by only an inch or so.But the students who had remembered a negative experience thought that the spider was much closer. On average, they thought the spider was about 7 inches closer to them than it really was. (In reality, the spider was 2 to 3 feet away, so 7 inches was a huge difference.) And the more negative the event they'd remembered, the closer the tarantula seemed to be.

I find this fascinating – that a person's mental state spills over into their perception of the real, physical world. Those dwelling on the positive seem to assess danger fairly accurately (even compared with those who are in a neutral frame of mind, which the team also tested).

A person thinking about a negative event literally experiences the rest of the world as a more threatening, dangerous place.You can actually take out a yardstick and measure (to the inch) how much more threatening a world he exists in─the result being that he may be increasingly less willing to engage in that world, because he sees it as so much more difficult to navigate. And, according to Harber, that subjective negative distortion doesn't just apply in the physical world; it also would affect social interactions.

Harber's tarantula experiment builds on work he'd done earlier with Dennis Proffitt of the University of Virginia. Proffitt is also working on the interaction between emotional state and physical perception. He and other scholars have asked people, "How far away is that bend in the road?" The replies change depending on their affect, fatigue, age, and physical condition.

Which brings me to Proffitt and Harber's recent collaboration, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The researchers grabbed 34 University of Virginia students who just happened to be strolling through campus, past a hill. Some of the students were walking alone. The others were in pairs with close friends.

The researchers asked the students to estimate the steepness of the hill. To do so, the students were handed a movable chart representing a cross section of the sky and ground. With a lever, students could manipulate the image so that the ground matched their assessment of the hill's slope. Everyone had overestimated the actual steepness of the hill─but the students who were in the presence of friends thought thehill was much less steep compared with those who had been walking alone.

Another researcher in England then replicated this experiment. She had people come to the hill alone but─before estimating its gradient─the researchers asked them to think about someone they could really count on when times were tough. The closer they were to the person they were thinking of, the warmth of the relationship, how happy they were in the relationship─each one of those made the hill seem less steep.

Which makes this one of the loveliest journal findings I've come across in a long time.People naturally overestimate the difficulty of the challenge that lies ahead. But just the mere presence of friends can make the world seem like a more manageable place.The thought that someone out there cares about you is enough to make the hills we inevitably face seem measurably easier to climb.


FYI - the lead author for the JESP/ hill experiment was Simone Schnall -- a professor at Cambridge.