I have to admit I’m like every other girl out there who has a fear of spiders and snakes. I walk in a wooded area at a state park in Westchester County with my dog on a daily basis and occasionally I will come across a small snake or a disgusting spider. You can pretty much count on the fact that once I have spotted the scary creature (that I am absolutely sure will get me even though I am substantially bigger than it is), I will start running away doing “high knees” and screaming. As you can probably imagine, I look pretty ridiculous doing this and I do feel quite embarrassed after the fact, but this does not stop me from doing it every single time I encounter one. Interestingly enough, I have never been bitten by a snake nor had a terrible reaction to a spider bite, so why do I get so scared? Has evolution primed me to have this reaction? I believe that it has.
It is clear that emotions play a very big part in our lives. We are constantly having different emotional reactions to events and it would be weird to think of a life without emotions (I personally think that it would be very boring). So where did emotions come from? Some researchers have proposed that emotions came to be because of adaptations. This means that they believe that emotions have some basis in our genes and the genes that cause us to experience emotions started out as a random mutation. Individuals who had emotions had more offspring than those who did not and this caused it to become typical of the whole population (Shiota & Kalat 2007). This seems like a good explanation for why we have emotions, but it still does not answer why I have an inborn fear of snakes and spiders, without having experienced a traumatic event with either of them.
A very interesting study was done that tried to explain just that. In order to understand the study we first have to understand the preparedness concept. This concept means that we are biologically prepared to learn certain associations more easily than others. Arne Ohman did a study testing the preparedness concept. The test was to see if humans are more likely to associate fear with snakes or houses (neutral stimuli) after being classically conditioned (lightly shocked) to fear both. The result was that only one pairing was needed of the shock and the pictures of the snakes to create fear of the snakes. On the other hand, not even five pairings of the houses and the shock could create fear for houses (Ohman 2009). This shows that humans are biologically wired to fear certain stimuli over others. “…the fears of individuals diagnosed with phobias reflect evolutionarily prepared learning to fear events and situations that have provided survival threats in an evolutionary rather than in a contemporary perspective. Thus, there are phobias for snakes and other threatening animals…” (Ohman 2009). It is adaptive for me to be scared of spiders and snakes. I fear both spiders and snakes which causes me to stay far away from them so that I do not get hurt (or worse case scenario killed) by them.
I have to thank evolution for this adaptation because without emotions, especially fear, I’m sure that I would get myself in some sticky situations that would probably not end well for me.
Ohman, Arne. “Of Snakes and Faces: An Evolutionary Perspective on the Psychology of Fear.” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 50.6 (2009): 543-52. Print.
Shiota, Michelle N., and James W. Kalat. Emotion. Australia: Wadsworth, 2012. Print.