A Healthy Fear of Snakes… But Why?

MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine, describes phobias as a type of anxiety disorder. People with phobias experience intense distress and fear about something that typically poses little or no threat. This excessive fear is often described as irrational because the thing being feared is unlikely to actually hurt anyone on its own. What I mean is that being afraid of a closed-in space is irrational because the closed-in space can’t actually hurt you. (Unless, of course, you’re a super secret spy and you get trapped in a room where the walls literally start closing in on you. But it’s highly unlikely.)

We all know someone with a fear of heights or a fear of being closed-in, but a basic fear is different than an actual phobia. Phobias produce panic attacks, where a person can essentially shut down or seize up, with a rapid heartbeat, trembling, and a strong desire to run screaming from the situation.

Fear is a good thing to have – it protects us from making stupid decisions, like playing with rattlesnakes, for example. In our evolutionary history, it helped us avoid large snakes that may have eaten us or venomous snakes taking cover in fruit trees, where we were foraging.

Some researchers think that a fear of snakes was integral to our development as a species. Lynne Isbell, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis, believes that humans evolved better vision in order to better avoid snakes. Her theory is that, while we were evolving from smaller mammal creatures, developing better vision (and later, a bigger brain) gave us an edge in surviving the danger of snake attacks. Snakes then had to up the ante; classic Red Queen! This article on LiveScience describes her theory in more detail, and it’s pretty interesting stuff. I’m not sure I’m convinced that snakes played such an integral part of human vision development, but it’s good brain candy nonetheless.

It appears that our innate fear of snakes and spiders shows up reliably in research. Two psychologists did a study a few years back that tested how quickly young children could pick out the shape of a snake or spider amidst a variety of other objects. The kids could point out the snakes and spiders more quickly than other objects, even if they didn’t personally possess a fear of them. This definitely suggests that humans are hard-wired to spot the potential (but rare) threat of those two critters.

Now, Richard McNally, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, put forth the question of whether there’s really any evolutionary cause for humans to be afraid of spiders. According to McNally, only “0.1 percent of the 35,000 kinds of spiders in the world are poisonous.” (This sentence is confusing because as I understand it, all spiders are venomous, but only a small percentage are actually a threat to humans.)

Jonathan Storm of the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg performed a study involving crickets and wolf spiders. He exposed pregnant crickets to wolf spiders and found that the offspring of those mothers were dramatically more likely to exhibit fear of spiders, spider silk, and spider poop, than offspring born of a mother who was not exposed to wolf spiders.

The research in this field is really fascinating to me, especially with my experience working in in nature education. I often encounter people (99% of the time, they’re women) who are so afraid of snakes that they can’t enter the same room as a snake on display. The snakes are, of course, in a very secure enclosure, but these visitors absolutely refuse. I have a personal love for snakes and try to encourage people to see that they don’t have some hidden agenda of attacking unsuspecting humans for no apparent reason. Visitors seem more disgusted by the spiders on display, and terrified of the snakes. An inability to even look at images of snakes in the nature center is definitely a phobia.

Therapies for phobias include systematic desensitization (a.k.a. exposure therapy), which involves gradual encounters with the feared thing. Desensitization for snakes might include drawing a snake, then looking at a photo of a snake, then seeing one in real life. The hope is that, while unpleasant, repeated exposure will help the phobic person to see that the experience is not inherently dangerous.

Are you afraid of snakes or spiders? What about other critters? How do you deal with it? I’d like to know!

Fun Facts:

Fear of snakes: Ophidiophobia or ophiophobia

Fear of spiders: Arachnophobia

Fear of insects: Entomophobia

Fear of fish: Ichthyophobia

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Posted on August 13, 2010, in Fauna and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hmmm…So I am evolutionarily unfit because I have this urge to grab every snake I see? Fortunately, I managed to put that desire aside in the tropics.

  2. I’m right there with you. It needs to be actively biting me for me to lose interest. Except with garter snakes – they’re nasty little boogers. And they STINK.

  3. I like snakes! I’m not crazy about spiders, but if I find one in the house I either let it be or move it gently outside. I’d rather have a spider in the house than a fly!

    What I do not like are beetles. I have never stepped on a beetle deliberately in my life because the crunch freaks me out!

  4. That makes me an ophidiophiliac! I do however find that the more legs a creature has, the more creepy it gets. I can take two footers and four footers pretty well, 6 footers are tollerable, but I’m lost to the eight footers completely. At the top of the “icky list” would be the centipedes.

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