Fear of snakes

Looking through a child’s eyes

By Katie Jacob (English '04)
Vanessa LoBue works with study participant Matei Ganea.

Vanessa LoBue works with study participant Matei Ganea.
Photo by Jack Mellott.

Are humans born with a fear of snakes?

Under the direction of Judy DeLoache, the University’s Child Study Center is trying to answer this question in its snake phobia study. Lab director DeLoache started the study because scientists now believe that humans may have a predisposition to develop a fear of snakes.

Second-year psychology graduate student Vanessa LoBue said that the Child Study Center wanted to do this study because, while some research has been done on the subject, the research has focused primarily on monkeys and adults.

The inspiration for the snake phobia study with children came about because, while adults have an “experience factor,” children do not. And though several studies on the fear of snakes seem to conclude that, with adults, there is an automatic reaction system in place to react to potentially dangerous small animals, LoBue wanted to see if the same is true for infants and young children. “We feel that if we find it with infants, we think the argument would be more convincing,” she said.

The study includes infants, children ages 3 to 5 and their parents. In one part of the study, for example, children in the 3-5 age group are asked to search for a snake (a fear-relevant image) on a screen with flowers (fear-irrelevant images) as distractions. Researchers then measure which pictures are detected the fastest — flowers or snakes. In comparison with the detection of non-snake objects, the children react much more quickly to the snakes.

The results of the study are not completed yet. LoBue hopes to find that humans, particularly infants and young children, are “more likely to learn an association between fear and something that could be dangerous to us versus fear of something that is not dangerous to us.”

It would seem that our association with something dangerous would differ according to whether the object was real or not. A real snake would produce a much stronger reaction than the images used in the study. But LoBue is quick to say that teaching fear is not the study’s objective.

“We don’t want to use the setup where we teach them anything. We don’t want to teach them fear of snakes,” she said. The purpose, she said, is to look for a “preparedness to learn to be afraid” in the infants and young children.

LoBue hopes to continue the experiments that have been going on for over a year now. More infants and toddlers will be needed to round out the team of participants and, though the Child Study Center keeps an ongoing catalog of local birth announcements in hopes of recruiting study subjects, it takes a long time to recruit, said LoBue.

Funding is another requirement. But LoBue and her colleagues are working on that too. “We’re going to apply for a grant so that we can keep going with the study,” she said.