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New Study Unravels Snake and Spider Phobias

A New Study on the Evolution of Fear


Updated July 10, 2008

For many years, experts have believed that humans are predisposed to phobias of snakes and spiders. Now, however, a team at the University of Queensland has shown that this is not necessarily the case.

The Hypothesis

In research studies, it has been shown that subjects react far differently to pictures of snakes and spiders than they do to other objects, even cars and guns, which can be far more dangerous. Traditionally, it was believed that this reaction was due to an evolutionary predisposition to fear.

The Experiment

The team tested this theory by exposing two groups to snakes and spiders and monitoring their reactions. One group consisted of people with little exposure to either animal. The other group was made up of spider and snake experts.

Participants in both groups paid closer attention to the snakes and spiders than they did to other stimuli. However, only those who were inexperienced with the animals showed signs of fear.


The researchers concluded that the tendency to pay close attention to spiders and snakes may be an evolutionary survival trait. However, the tendency to fear those animals is not automatic. This study was the first to separate preferential attention from an automatic fear response and, as such, opens the door to possible new treatments for phobias.

The research team is in the planning stages of several new studies. They plan to attempt to duplicate their results with various groups of people who have varying levels of familiarity and comfort with different animals. They also plan a study to determine whether preferential attention is given to things that people love.

While it is too early to determine the precise impact of this latest study, the results seem to support the theory that phobias are learned rather than evolved. Further research will show whether the theory is widely applicable.


UQ News Online. The University of Queensland. “Researchers unlock snake and spider mystery.” March 7, 2008. http://www.uq.edu.au/news/index.html?article=14203

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