An approaching snake or venomous spider may be farther away than our minds tell us, they said.
"Our results show that emotion and perception are not fully dissociable in the mind," psychologist Stella Lourenco of Emory University reported. "Fear can alter even basic aspects of how we perceive the world around us. This has clear implications for understanding clinical phobias."
People generally have a well-developed sense for when objects heading towards them will make contact, but an experiment showed the effect of fear could lessen the accuracy of that skill, the researchers said.
Study participants making time-to-collision judgments of images shown approaching on a computer screen tended to underestimate the collision time for images of threatening objects, such as a snake or spider, as compared to non-threatening images, such as a rabbit or butterfly.
"We're showing that what the object is affects how we perceive looming. If we're afraid of something, we perceive it as making contact sooner," co-researcher Matthew Longo of the University of London said.