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Tots fearless when facing spiders, snakes, study suggests

A spider is seen in its web in Los Angeles, California on October 11, 2010. TOPSHOTS/AFP PHOTO/GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
A spider is seen in its web in Los Angeles, California on October 11, 2010. TOPSHOTS/AFP PHOTO/GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)Gabe Bouys / AFP - Getty Images file

Like the girl in that old Jim Stafford song, most people don’t like spiders and snakes. But according to new research involving infants and children, we don’t start off this way.

According to Vanessa LoBue, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers and co-author of a recent study in Current Directions in Psychological Science, spider and snake phobias are incredibly common. But they’re also rather baffling, since most of us have never been directly threatened by a wolf spider or garter snake.

“When you look at the way people learn to be afraid of things, they usually have a negative encounter,” she says. “A dog bites you when you’re little, so you’re afraid of dogs. But most people haven’t been bitten by a snake or spider.”

One popular view to explain our disproportionate fear is that humans have developed a genetic advantage to recognize – and fear -- snakes and spiders very quickly. In other words, natural selection favors people who scream bloody murder whenever they see what appears to be a poisonous critter.

According to a series of experiments conducted on more than 70 small children, though, while quickly recognizing creepy creatures appears to be innate, fearing them is not.

In one experiment, researchers showed videos of a snake and some other exotic animal (like an elephant or giraffe) to 48 infants, ages 7 to 9 months or 16 to 18 months. They then played either a “happy voice” or a “fearful voice” to the children and observed what the children were looking at when listening to the voices. Children looked at the snake picture longer when listening to the “fearful” voice.

Other experiments involved asking 24 toddlers and 24 adults to look at nine pictures and identify a target picture such as a flower or mushroom or cockroach or spider. Much like the adults, the 3-year-olds detected snakes more quickly than flowers or frogs or caterpillars and detected spiders more quickly than mushrooms or cockroaches.

“Children and infants respond in similar ways as adults,” says LoBue. “They respond to [spiders and snakes] really quickly. But they’re not afraid of them. Not a single one got upset.”

Where does our horror of these creatures come from, then? LoBue says that’s what she’s trying to figure out with new research, which involves studying how toddlers behave when they encounter a live tarantula or live snake.

“The fear itself is what I’m interested in,” she says. “How do 3-year-olds who can rapidly detect snakes and are biased to associate snakes with fear become fearful adults? Do they learn it from their parents? Do they learn it from textbooks? Do they just learn that snakes are things that can cause harm? Or do they observe moms or teachers or friends behaving fearfully?”

Gina Lindblad, a 32-year-old public relations account manager from Seattle, says she has no doubt where she learned her fear of snakes.

“When I was 5, my grandmother and I were playing around a stack of small boulders at my family’s lake property and we both noticed a snake slither between two rocks,” she says. “Grandma freaked out and scurried back towards the cabin and naturally, I went with her. She refused to go back by the rocks for the rest of the day and I was afraid to even go back on the lawn. Later, she felt bad and told me we should name the snake Cinderella and call the boulders her ‘castle.’ But I’ve been terrified of snakes ever since.”

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