Why We Have Spiderman but no Spiderwoman

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.


Filed under In the News, Research

19 responses to “Why We Have Spiderman but no Spiderwoman

  1. my family is a bit odd. my sister & I grew up in a wooded area, and often petted wild toads, frogs, snakes, captured all kinds of bugs (incl. spiders for observation)… sis has a pet boa constrictor now that we are all grown up.

    Mom is kinda “woodsy gal” though too.

    However, a big hairy spider or centipede in the bathtub, and I go get my cat the bug hunter!

    • brucehood

      That’s a lot cheaper and more effective than my friend who has to call her “exterminator man” for an out call fee. Not so bad ’till you learn she lives in countryside.

  2. Jez

    Interestingly we don’t see the same sort of phobic response to wolves or big cats.

    • brucehood

      Really good point Jez… That’s one of the reasons why I am always a bit wary of evo-devo arguments because people can always come up with scenarios for why something appears to be wired in. There are all sorts of innate components which don’t seem to have any obvious functions but then many may be exaptations rather than adaptations. (traits which are co-opted aspects of some other adaptation)

    • another observation, babies were already 11 mos old, and had been modeling off parent behavior all through that 11 mos. (“HONEY! come get this bug!”)

      baby = information sponge.
      11 month old is ALREADY culturally influenced.

      my example from prior comment of two girls raised with woodsy mom, NOT afraid of ANY creepy crawlies. I can escort something outside myself… OR fetch the cat to eat it myself. Either way No Biggie.

      Another flaw is that further reading shows that the Sample size was ridiculously small. 20 babies is hardly a big enough sample to tell you ANYTHING useful. (or whether they’re also reacting to the testers!)

  3. I grew up in central Florida and got completely used to living side-by-side with snakes, giant beetles, flying cockroaches, huge fire ants that left welts when they bit, and all sorts of spiders (poisonous and non). (Oh yeah, and alligators but they’re lazy as hell)

    Spiders were the only creatures that bothered me, though I was okay sharing my camping bunks with the banana spiders: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nephila. They create the most beautiful webs, it was almost like decorating the roof of the cabin.

    I’ll be interested to see what you make of the study when it’s published, Bruce!

  4. Me: girl. Up through 5th grade, re-creating execution scenes with sticks and waterbugs/cockroaches in the rock garden, roasting Japanese beetles, and pulling the legs off of harvestmen. Somewhere around 6th grade, I started shrieking and refusing to go within 4 feet of anything leggy and crawly. Couldn’t explain what was now wrong with bugs until I saw “Through a Glass Darkly.”

  5. Okay, more of my weirdness. I actually like most spiders, find them beautiful. Love big yellow and black garden spiders and won’t let anyone tear down the webs.

    It’s the little spiders that I don’t like, but don’t really fear. But a centipede, that’s cause for great concern. Have been terrified of those buggers since I was very young. Used to lift up my sheets every night to make sure no centipedes had gotten into my bed.

    Indoctrination? My mother doesn’t much care about bugs that I know of. My dogs love to catch flies. Maybe the female infants realized that a gargantan tarantula doesn’t belong near a smiling face unless a movie camera is involved.

  6. Hey Bruce, I was browsing in a Sydney bookshop today and saw your book so I bought a copy. It’ll probably be a while before I get round to reading it as I received several books for my birthday. Will let you know when I have done so…..

  7. Mark

    “It can’t be learning and indoctrination when these things are appearing so early in development.”

    It might be, as trinlay pointed out – 11 months is plenty of time for some learning to occur.

    But more importantly, learning and indoctrination might play a very large part in reinforcing or diminishing innate behaviors. Enough that the main contributor to the existence of phobias may be those environmental influences. I don’t know, but it seems reasonable. Do you know of any longitudinal research on this topic?

  8. Oh I’d love Spiderwoman!
    She’d be HOT!

  9. My daughter learned to be frightened of spiders when she went to nursery – and especially school. Interestingly, when my son went to nursery he also went through a phase of over-reaction to spiders (I guess learned from the nursery staff), but has now learned the correct ‘boy’ attitude!

    Based on my sample of 2 (!), attitude to mini-beasts is far more dictated by culture than is, say, attitudes to football or fighting. Not to say that there is no gender bias at all, of course.

  10. Arno

    Just to be a total spoil sport who takes things deliberately way too literally: WROANG!!!

  11. Bruce Gorton

    Actually, there IS a Spiderwoman.

    She even got her own TV series for a while.

    The trouble was, much like Batgirl, Supergirl, and suchlike – she was basically a pail reflection of a popular male character so she didn’t attain the same level of popularity.

    /comics geek moment.

  12. Johan Richter

    “For example, learning or indoctrination does not explain why people have snake phobias where there are no snakes (Ireland & New Zealand).”

    Unless you suppose that these countries are influenced by the general western culture that tends to see snakes as dangerous and disgusting.

    I am sure people in Ireland and New Zealand have heard of snakes and know their reputation. In Ireland for example I am sure they have heard the story of Adam and Eve and the snake, if I may be slightly non-serious.

  13. Skeptici

    “What is it with spiders and females? I mean they rarely bite and are totally harmless in the UK.”

    According to the Natural History Museum, more than a dozen species of spider in the UK are capable – and have been known to – cause harm.

    Now I know that, I’m going to call my local priest and have him bless my home and garden – to protect me from those ungodly critters. Of course, just to be safe, I’ll call the local Immam, Rabbi, witch doctor, Jedi-Knight and Scientologist. I’ll then phone the Times and have them gloat: See, even ardent atheists are superstitious.

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