Many people are deathly afraid of snakes. It is actually one of the most common fears in the world. Now researchers are trying to determine at what stage in life we actually become afraid of snakes.
It is well-known that babies find living animals more interesting than stuffed animals By studying babies’ reactions when confronted with snakes, researchers hoped to find insight into the nature of fear and when it is acquired.
One view of people’s fear of snakes is that we have evolved over time to fear them because some species are deadly. But new research indicates otherwise. The new study found evidence that overturns the idea that humans are born with a fear of snakes.
The team measured physiological responses of several babies while they watched different videos of snakes and elephants, paired with both happy and fearful voices.
The researchers then startled the babies to gauge their reaction. The babies were presented with a “startle probe” consisting of an unexpected bright flash of light while they watched the videos.
Co-author of the study conducted at Rutgers University, Vanessa LoBue, pointed out that a startled reaction to the bright light was more intense if the babies were already scared from what they saw on the videos. LoBue compared it to when people watch scary movies, they react and jump more if they are already scared and tense.
LoBue observed that, “What we found is that [the babies’] startle responses were not bigger when watching a video of a snake, even when paired with a fearful voice.”
In fact, the babies paid more attention to the videos of snakes, but their fear was not invoked. Their startle response and their heart response was measured at low levels.
LoBue expected these results. She noted that, interestingly, human babies and monkeys are known to have a greater interest in snakes than other animals. This suggests that snakes are somehow of special interest in some way. However that interest does not equate to fear.
LoBue it is now convinced that the fear of snakes is culturally conditioned rather than something we are born with.
She stated that, “While we find differential responses to snakes early on, meaning they are special, it doesn't seem to be related to fear early in development. It’s possible that paying more attention to something might make fear learning easier later on. It facilitates fear learning.”
LoBue also says that it is a good thing that we are not born with fears of things. “It's not adaptive to have any hard-wired fear” because it would stifle a baby’s desire to explore new things.
The findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.