05 March 2008

Fear of Snakes

One of my herp listservs sent this out today. I thought it was an interesting article on snakes. I have taught thousands of people about snakes and it's amazing how many of them are afraid. Of course, from my experience, the younger the person the less fear they have. I attribute most fear as a learned behavior from their parents. This article seeks to prove otherwise.

Evolution Of Aversion: Why Even Children Are Fearful Of Snakes
ScienceDaily (Feb. 28, 2008) —
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.

Adapted from materials provided by Association for Psychological Science.

My friend Melanie with a Scarlet Kingsnake.


kim said...

Interesting article - but I'm not so sure the results show what's being claimed. It's the researchers that said to find the snake amongst innocuous things or the "nonthreatening item" among snakes - thus implying through their methodology that snakes are inherently threatening. Also, being able to detect them quickly doesn't necessarily imply fear.

Fear of snakes could certainly be an adaptive behavior, but this article doesn't convince me that that's what's going on. All this shows is that people can detect snakes faster than certain other stimuli - it's a bit of a jump to label that as fear. There's got to be a better way to test this.

Eva Matthews said...

I agree with you on the shortcomings of this test. Plus fear is defined as: "A feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger." I am sure that humans can detect danger, but that doesn't imply they will have a fear of the danger.