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."
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