What is it about?

Snakes and spiders are some of the most commonly feared animals across the globe among children and adults. Previous research suggests that human and non-human primates have evolved specialized psychological mechanisms to rapidly detect and avoid evolutionary threats (such as snakes and spiders) to promote survival. However, developmental research suggests that snake and spider fears are not innate, as several studies have shown that infants and young children do not display fearful behaviors toward snakes and spiders, and sometimes even approach these animals. Here we examined whether young children—who are unlikely to have had a negative (or any) encounter with snakes and spiders—can develop such fears as a result of the information they hear and learn about these animals. We first examined the kinds of information parents provide to children about different kinds of animals. In Study 1, we found that parents and children reported more fear of snakes and spiders, and also provided more negative than positive information about snakes and spiders compared to other animals, including frogs, lizards, and turtles. In Study 2, we found that informing parents about the impact of their conversations on children’s learning and fears might have the potential to reduce the amount of negative information that parents provide, and it may also reduce children's fear. Overall, the results suggest that parent–child conversations about snakes and spiders may provide the basis for the development of some snake and spider fears and that we might be able to use the very same mechanism—verbal input from parents—to potentially reduce or prevent those fears from developing in the first place.

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Why is it important?

The current research adds to the literature on the development of specific fears. Our findings suggest that there is an imbalance of negative information available to children about animals like snakes and spiders in their natural environments, which could help account for why these animal fears are more common than others. Further, by making parents aware of the impact of their conversations on children's attitudes, we saw that parents used less negative information and children reported slightly less fear as a result. Taken together, these findings demonstrate the role of parent-child conversations in children's everyday experiences that may shape the development of some of our most common fears.


The findings from this paper have inspired future work exploring how other kinds of information can help promote children’s accurate learning about animals, as well as the role of prior experiences and cultural attitudes toward commonly feared animals.

Lori Reider
Rutgers University Newark

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: “It bites!”: The transmission of negative information about snakes and spiders through a naturalistic picture book interaction., Developmental Psychology, August 2022, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/dev0001429.
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