Why Are We So Afraid Of Snakes?


| 5 Comments
We surround ourselves with creatures everyday. Many of us own dogs and cats for example, or maybe a hamster or pet fish. We're used to being around animals, yet we have certain fears of some. Why is it that we aren't scared of a dog that could easily harm us, but even the thought of a snake or spider completely freaks most of us out, even if we know the chances of encountering a poisonous one are quite slim?

I was happy to find that I wasn't the one asking this question.

 Experiments were held with babies, in which they were shown a fearful picture, like a snake, and a non fearful animal, like a giraffe. They found that the babies did not react like they were scared of the image, but paid more attention to the snake image. Three year olds could identify the snakes easier as being scary, but I wonder if this is because of the learned fear. I find it interesting that babies aren't scared of snakes, but are fascinated with them or can recognize them early on.

I had considered the fact that we could possibly be born to be scared of these animals because they are dangerous, and that is why I asked this question. Some anthropologists  believe that humans have evolved into creatures that are scared of snakes and spiders because of their poisonous nature, and snakes were once a serious danger to humans everywhere. As it turns out, our phobias could be genetic.

Just about every source I found had the same idea- that being scared of snakes was genetic, a bias that we developed through evolution. Personally, I think it could easily be a taught fear: perhaps we are all scared of snakes because it's been passed down for generations and we simply learn to be scared of the creatures.
 Do you think that there's a possibility that it is more learned than genetic? Could there be other factors involved?


5 Comments

This is another example of Nature vs Nurture. Because a fear of snakes is such a universal thing, I feel like it must be genetic. Though not everyone is afraid of snakes this could be due to a learned behavior. In cases of pet store workers, zoologists or even farmers who may see snakes on a regular basis, snakes will become a common sight and the natural fear might fade away, especially in situations where they are handled. Behavioral genetics can determine homosexuality, addiction, or folding your tongue in strange ways so why couldn't it determine irrational fears?

I have always been afraid of snakes and I really have no idea why. Until recently, my friend got a ball python snake that is about 3 feet tall. I was very hesitant at first to hold it but one night I decided to. Ever since then, I always feel comfortable holding it and it is crazy how muscular they are. When you hold one, you can feel its muscles getting tighter and then slowly contracting. I am still very much scared of snakes though. I think this is mainly due to the depiction of snakes on TV and most specifically in movies because they are always portrayed as killers. In a recent gallop poll that asked adults what they feared most, snakes were listed at the top of the list at 51% (http://www.gallup.com/poll/1891/snakes-top-list-americans-fears.aspx). I feel like it is more of a learned behavior than genetics because I am really the only one in my family who is scared of snakes. Like Aaron said in the above comment, people really are not that exposed to snakes so when presented with a situation regarding one, they do not know how to react. That plays a major role in why snakes are so feared.

You hit the nail on the head, snakes and spiders are my biggest fears! I'm glad to know that experiments are being done to test the fears. I wonder, is the reason we are afraid due to biological responces? Our bodies are deveopled with survival tactics against nature, so is recognizing a snake early on just our body being protective? It is very interesting to think that we are born with the instinct of fear and that it is not just learned from the environemnt. With the whole nature vs. nurture debate I am definately a strong believer that both come into play on a human's development. Very intersting topic! I think I will do some research of my own relating to instinctual fear.

I know I have been afraid of snakes and bugs and other scary creatures because I have always been told that they are dangerous. Also, when you look at movies or shows, it is always a snake or spider that is causing harm to people not dogs or cats. Little kids watch tons of cartoons and animated films that show this exact problem. There are shows that show crime fighting dogs like Scooby Doo, and then they show snakes as villian like in Aladdin. It is not suprising that at a young age, most kids are afraid of snake and that they continue to be scared as teens and adults.

After reading your blog post, I was interested in learning more about this theory. Looking around, I found this article from ABC News, which discusses the study with babies that you mentioned: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/afraid-snakes-scientists-explain/story?id=12759901#.UIothcXzMhw

This article describes the method of the experiment, and although I understand how it works, I still think there may be another reason for this seemingly "innate" fear. I will focus on this passage specifically: "DeLoache and LoBue tested infants (8 to 14 months old) and 3-year-old children and adults to see if they found images of snakes more quickly in a matrix of several images than they found harmless objects, like flowers. In all three cases the participants found snakes faster than flowers."

I think this reaction of finding the snakes quickly is because most children and adults see flowers very regularly, if not on a daily basis. A snake, however, is not something that most people see on a regular basis. Perhaps the reaction to seeing the snake was stronger because it was an unusual thing to see? I understand the theory behind the evolutionary genetics, but I think an alternative theory, such as the one I just mentioned, is also extremely possible.

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