In Brief

People with an overpowering fear may not be able to consciously control the direction of their gaze when faced with a picture eliciting that fear, according to a new study published in the journal Emotion (Vol. 5, No. 1). In particular, those with a fear of spiders, or arachnophobia, may not be able to avoid looking toward a spider in the grass, while those without the fear can, the study's findings indicate.

To reach this finding, the researchers outfitted 26 college students--half of whom had arachnophobia--with a device that tracks eye movements. They then showed the participants a four-by-four grid of flowers on a computer screen, where a picture of a grey-brown spider and a grey-brown mushroom each occupied one space on the grid.

In one trial, the researchers asked the students to press the spacebar when they spotted a mushroom, but to ignore any spiders. In a second condition, the researchers asked the students to press the key when they saw the spider, but to avoid looking at mushrooms.

When instructed to ignore the spider and spot the mushroom, the students with arachnophobia could not avoid looking at the spider--causing them to notice the mushroom three-tenths of a second more slowly than the control group. Additionally, after the experimenters instructed the students to search for the spider, the arachnophobic students found the spider and pressed the space bar about three-tenths of a second more quickly than the nonphobic students.

These findings show that the attention processes of people with a powerful fear of spiders may be beyond their conscious control, says study author Wolfgang Miltner, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Jena, in Germany--suggesting that treatments that focus on conscious cognitive processes may not work for such phobias. Instead, therapists could--and do--use treatments that focus on preconscious processing, such as systematic desensitization, he says.

"This automatic attentional bias should be addressed by therapists, and therapists might look at whether this bias has changed after treatment," Miltner notes. That way, they'd be sure the intervention had an effect at the unconscious level, he says.