The evolution of aversion: Why even children are fearful of snakes

February 27, 2008
The evolution of aversion: Why even children are fearful of snakes
Why even children are fearful of snakes. Credit: Association for Psychological Science

Some of the oldest tales and wisest mythology allude to the snake as a mischievous seducer, dangerous foe or powerful iconoclast; however, the legend surrounding this proverbial predator may not be based solely on fantasy. As scientists from the University of Virginia recently discovered, the common fear of snakes is most likely intrinsic.

Evolutionarily speaking, early humans who were capable of surviving the dangers of an uncivilized society adapted accordingly. And the same can be said of the common fear of certain animals, such as spiders and snakes: The ancestors of modern humans were either abnormally lucky or extraordinarily capable of detecting and deterring the threat of, for example, a poisonous snake.

Psychologists Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache were able to show this phenomenon by examining the ability of adults and children to pinpoint snakes among other nonthreatening objects in pictures.

“We wanted to know whether preschool children, who have much less experience with natural threats than adults, would detect the presence of snakes as quickly as their parents,” LoBue explained. “If there is an evolved tendency in humans for the rapid detection of snakes, it should appear in young children as well as their elders.”

Preschool children and their parents were shown nine color photographs on a computer screen and were asked to find either the single snake among eight flowers, frogs or caterpillars, or the single nonthreatening item among eight snakes. As the study surprisingly shows, parents and their children identified snakes more rapidly than they detected the other stimuli, despite the gap in age and experience.

The results, which appear in the March 2008 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, may provide the first evidence of an adapted, visually-stimulated fear mechanism in humans.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Imaging study reveals differences in brain function for children with math anxiety

Related Stories

Fear of exams can be overcome, psychologist says

January 30, 2017

What lies at the origin of the fear of examinations, and what can students and lecturers do to allay it? In the following interview, LMU Professor Anne Frenzel (Chair of Psychology in the Learning Sciences) answers both questions.

Recommended for you

Study documents range of challenging meditation experiences

May 24, 2017

Meditation is increasingly being marketed as a treatment for conditions such as pain, depression, stress and addiction, and while many people achieve therapeutic goals, other meditators encounter a much broader range of experiences—sometimes ...

How listening to music in a group influences depression

May 24, 2017

Listening to music together with others has many social benefits, including creating and strengthening interpersonal bonds. It has previously been shown that enjoying music in a group setting has an impact on social relationships, ...

The surprising science of fidgeting

May 24, 2017

Hand-held toys known as "fidget spinners" – marketed as "stress relievers" – have become so popular and distracting in classrooms that they are now being banned in many schools. And it's not just kids who like to fidget. ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

vlam67
not rated yet Feb 27, 2008
The article about the study did not clarify whether or not the researchers forewarned the preschool children that snakes are dangerous.

However, from the gist of the explanations of highly esteemed Psychologists Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache, one must conclude that they pre-armed the children with the info of what a snake looks like (ie looking for snake), and pre-input the concept of danger (quote:..or the single [b]nonthreatening[/b] item among eight snakes..)

This is crap!!! The nebulous "science" of psychology is down another notch on my Scientific Rigor Meter.

I would rather shown high-res pics of snakes in wild scenery snapshots to young children who had no preconception of whatsoever, with no comments and ask them how they feel if they are there and facing it. Like the first innocent primitives who step into the vicinity of unknown dangers...the perceptive ones will live, the insensitive ones did not..!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.