I just got back from a holiday in Tuscany with my girls that was highly enjoyable despite spending the two weeks fighting off the various insects and bugs that are the norm for such climates. At the moment, this part of Italy is experiencing an exceptional heatwave and I wonder whether these high temperatures have stimulated the excessive entomological activity around our villa. The mosquitoes were fairly vicious but once again it was the spiders that seemed to generate the most anxiety.
What is it with spiders and females? I mean they rarely bite and are totally harmless in the UK. Why do they invoke such uncontrollable terror? On my return, I read of a study just published by Dr. David Rakison of Carnegie Mellon in the journal of Evolution and Behavior where he reports that male and female infants respond differently to the paired presentations of pictures of spiders with either smiling or fearful faces. I haven’t had time to review the details of the study as it appears to still be “in press” which means that it has passed the review process by experts and just awaits publication.
Anyway, from what I can gather from the article in the Daily Mail (reader beware!), Rakison conducted a visual looking time study with infants showing them first a picture of a fearful face with a spider – I can’t imagine that he would have used the one shown here that was used in the Daily Mail article to illustrate the piece! After this initial pairing the babies were shown two further images – a spider next to a happy face and a flower alongside a scared face. Apparently, female 11-month-olds looked longer when they were shown the combination of a spider picture and a smiling face suggesting that they treated this pairing as an anomaly – something wasn’t right. In contrast, 11-month-old male infants couldn’t care less.
This is a neat little finding and if it holds up will support the common sense view that females are indeed more scared of spiders – another example of built-in dispositions that I keep going on about. For example, learning or indoctrination does not explain why people have snake phobias where there are no snakes (Ireland & New Zealand).
Of course I take the argument further by saying that the same dispositions operate with thoughts and beliefs. It can’t be learning and indoctrination when these things are appearing so early in development. Rather, all of us carry around in our genes a legacy of encounters that shaped the way we behave and think about the world.