Thursday, 27 March 2008

More evidence that fear of snakes is hard-wired

Slithery, scaly, and downright terrifying is how many people view snakes. Even in Britain, which has only one species of poisonous snake, people are often afraid. Some experts have suggested the snake's public relations problem is based on the fact humans have a hard-wired fear of snakes and other threatening creatures like spiders. Now this argument has found fresh support from a series of experiments showing that, like adults, pre-school age children have a superior ability for detecting snakes compared with innocuous creatures.

Dozens of children aged between three and five years were presented with 3 x 3 grids on a computer screen. Their task was to touch the one square containing a snake as fast as possible while ignoring the squares which all contained either flowers, caterpillars or frogs, depending on the particular experiment. For a comparison condition, the children had to touch the one square containing either flowers, a caterpillar or frog (again, it depended on the experiment), while ignoring all the other squares which contained snakes.

Throughout, the children were significantly faster when the task was to spot a snake from among distractors than when the task was to spot flowers, frogs or caterpillars. Crucially, in many cases the children's parents said their offspring had never experienced snakes and were unaware of the dangerous reputation they have -yet the kids still showed this selective advantage for spotting snakes.

The researchers Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache said their findings were consistent with the idea that humans have a fear module in the brain which is selectively sensitive to evolutionarily relevant threat stimuli. "The evolutionary claim," they said "is that [in the past] individuals who more rapidly detected the stimulus attributes signifying the presence of a poisonous snake or spider would have been more likely to escape the danger and hence to survive and reproduce."
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LoBue, V., DeLoache, J.S. (2008). Detecting the Snake in the Grass: Attention to Fear-Relevant Stimuli by Adults and Young Children. Psychological Science, 19(3), 284-289. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02081.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

2 comments:

  1. wrt creationism and all that rubbish. evolutionary evidence for wanting to avoid danger. wa Genesis. This is just begging to be shown as evidence for god and the devil.
    Its funny how one piece of evidence could be interpreted as rock solid evidence for different things

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  2. Interestingly, monkeys don't appear to have an innate fear of snakes. If raised without exposure to snakes, they do not exhibit a fear response to them. However, if they then observe another monkey show a fear response to a snake, they will afterwards also fear snakes.

    That said, they don't learn fear responses to things like apples, even if they see other monkeys who are afraid of apples. Like so many things, this appears to be part learned, part innate.

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