With Halloween right around the corner, it’s the perfect time to talk about the things that go bump in the night, the things that send shivers down our spine, and the things that slither and crawl. Most people have a fear of snakes and spiders (Hoel, Hellmer, Johansson, & Gredebäck, 2017). Just the sight of one of these creepy critters can send people running, but is this fear learned or instinctual?
Many of our fears are learned, however, others are innate (Leahy, 2008). For example, eating bad fish can cause us to become ill, and we may learn to avoid similar fish (Leahy, 2008). This learned aversion is the result of one-trial learning. Yet, we have many fears that did not require trial learning. Most of us are born with a fear of heights, yet we don’t have to fall from a great height to know that heights scare us (Leahy, 2008). Instead, this fear is instinctual and useful in protecting us from potential harm.
In regards to snakes and spiders, prior research had difficulty determining if the fear was learned from parents and others in the environment or an instinctual fear (Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences [MPIHCBS], 2017). Others had determined that most people, even those who lived in cities with no exposure to these creatures, had a deep fear of snakes and spiders, yet past research looked at adults and young children who might have learned this fear from parents or grandparents exposed to these tiny terrors (MPIHCBS, 2017). A new study took a different approach and showed infants pictures of flowers paired with spiders and fish paired with snakes (Hoehl et al., 2017). When examining the snakes and spiders, infants’ pupils demonstrated an increased dilation when compared to their neutral pairings, suggesting a sympathetic response to these frightening stimuli (Hoehl et al., 2017). These findings suggest that our fear of snakes and spiders, much like our fear of heights, is instinctual and meant to help us avoid potential threats (Hoehl et al., 2017).
Hoehl, S., Hellmer, K., Johansson, M., & Gredebäck, G. (2017). Itsy bitsy spider…: Infants react with increased arousal to spiders and snakes. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01710
Leahy, R.L. (2008). Are we born to be afraid? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/anxiety-files/200805/are-we-born-be-afraid
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. (2017). Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171019110953.htm
Michael Daniel, MA
WKPIC Doctoral Intern