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Jan 25, 2011 at 05:39pm IST

Fear of spiders, snakes acquired

Washington: We aren't born afraid of spiders and snakes, but we can pick up these fears very quickly as infants, scientists say.

Arne Ohman at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and Susan Mineka from Northwestern University, US, have studied how infants and toddlers react to scary objects, the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science reports.

In one set of experiments, they showed infants as young as seven months old two videos side by side - one of a snake and one of something non-threatening, such as an elephant, according to a Northwestern statement.

Fear of spiders, snakes acquired

We can pick up fear of spiders and snakes very quickly as infants.

At the same time, they played either a fearful voice or a happy voice. The babies spent more time looking at the snake videos when listening to the fearful voices, but showed no signs of fear themselves.

"What we're suggesting is that we have these biases to detect things like snakes and spiders really quickly, and to associate them with things that are yucky or bad, like a fearful voice," says Vanessa LoBue of Rutgers University.

In another study, three-year-olds were shown a screen of nine photographs and asked to pick out some target item.

They identified snakes more quickly than flowers and more quickly than other animals that look similar to snakes, such as frogs and caterpillars.

Children who were afraid of snakes were just as fast at picking them out than children who hadn't developed that fear.

"The original research by Ohman and Mineka with monkeys and adults suggested two

important things that make snakes and spiders different," LoBue says. "One is that we detect them quickly. The other is that we learn to be afraid of them really quickly."

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