A large number of people count snakes and spiders among their fears. Now, a new study claims to have unlocked the psychology of the common phobias.
Researchers have found that contrary to assumptions that humans possess an evolutionary predisposition to fear the creepy creatures, it is the exposure to negative information about snakes and spiders, which causes phobias.
“Previous research shows we react differently to snakes and spiders than to other stimuli, such as flowers or mushrooms, or even other dangerous animals... or cars and guns, which are also much more dangerous. (In the past, this) has been explained by saying that people are predisposed by evolution to fear certain things, such as snakes and spiders, that would have been dangerous to our ancestors.
“(However), people tend to be exposed to a lot of negative information regarding snakes and spiders, and we argue this makes them more likely to be associated with phobia,” said Dr Helena Purkis of University of Queensland. Researchers compared the responses to stimuli of participants with no particular experience with snakes and spiders, to that of snake and spider experts.
“Previous research has argued that snakes and spiders attract preferential attention and that during this early processing a negative response is generated... as an implicit and indexed subconscious (action). “We showed that although everyone preferentially attends to snakes or spiders in the environment as they are potentially dangerous, only inexperienced participants display a negative response,” Purkis said.
According to the researchers, the findings could significantly increase understanding about the basic cognitive and emotional processes involved in the acquisition and maintenance of fear.
“If we understand the relationship between preferential attention and emotion it will help us understand how a stimulus goes from being perceived as potentially dangerous, to eliciting an emotional response and to being associated with phobia.
“(This) could give us some information about the way people need to deal with snakes and spiders in order to minimise negative emotional responses,” the ScienceDaily quoted Purkis as saying.
The researchers are now planning a follow-up study, which will test their theory that love and fear, or phobia, involve the same basic attention mechanism.
“We’re interested in testing animal stimuli for animal lovers to see whether these stimuli, a dog for a breeder for instance, have access to preferential attention (in the same way as snakes and spiders do for those with phobias of them),” Purkis said.