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10 December 2023

Parents pass on 'irrational fear' of spiders and snakes to children

By Staff

If you're terrified of spiders, or fearful of snakes, then blame your parents, reports the Daily Mail.

A study challenges the widely held view that we are hard-wired to fear creepy crawlies and instead suggests we learn to be scared of them in the first years of life.

Fear of snakes is one of the most common - and in Britain - irrational phobias. Half the population is thought to suffer even though most have never actually seen a snake.

Experts at Rutgers University in Newark showed seven-month-old babies two videos side by side – one of a snake and another of a non-threatening animal.

At the same time, the babies were played a recording of either a fearful human voice or a happy one.

The infants spent more time looking at the snake videos when listening to the fearful voices, but showed no signs of fear themselves, the researchers report in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Past studies have shown that people can be taught to fear almost anything. In one Swedish study, scientists showed volunteers images of snakes, spiders, flowers and mushrooms while giving them a small electric shock.

Unsurprisingly, the volunteers learnt to associate all the images with fear.

In Britain half of women and a fifth of men are thought to be frightened of spiders, irrespective of whether they are dangerous or not.

Many scientists argue that the phobias, exploited by Hollywood movies such as Arachnophobia and Snakes on a Plane, evolved millions of years ago when our ancestors lived alongside a host of deadly reptiles and insects in Africa.

Natural selection is likely to favour people who stay away from potentially dangerous animals, they say.

But the latest study challenges the theory that snake and spider phobias are innate.

Babies recognise potentially dangerous animals, but are not yet scared of them.

In a second experiment, three-year-olds were shown a screen of nine photographs and told to pick out a named object.

They identified snakes more quickly than flowers, and more quickly than other animals that looked similar to snakes such as caterpillars and frogs.

The children who were afraid of snakes were just as fast at picking them out than children who had not developed a snake phobia.

'What we’re suggesting is that we have these biases to detect things like snakes and spiders really quickly, and to associate them with things that are yucky or bad, like a fearful voice,' said Dr Vanessa LoBue of Rutgers University, an author of the paper.

Babies detect snakes quickly - and then learn to be afraid of them really quickly, she said.

In one Swedish study, scientists showed volunteers images of snakes, spiders, flowers and mushrooms while giving them a small electric shock.

The volunteers learnt to associate an electric shock with all the images - but the effect lasted a lot longer with snakes and spiders.

Another US study found that monkeys raised in a laboratory are not afraid of snakes,  but will learn to fear snakes more quickly than they learn to fear rabbits or flowers.