Fear is defined as an “unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm” (Oxford Dictionary, 2017). While fear and fear responses are similar across many different populations and cultures, the stimuli are vastly different.
In a study done by Arne Öhman (2009), participants were subject to an object finding task, in which they were required to find fear-relevant objects (snakes and spiders) or fear-irrelevant objects (mushrooms and flowers). The findings concluded that the fear-relevant stimulus has a significantly lower reaction time than the fear-irrelevant; furthermore, participants that were afraid of snakes as opposed to spiders had an even lower reaction time of their feared stimulus (Öhman et al., 2001).
Figure 1. An example of finding a fear-relevant object surrounded by fear-irrelevant objects. (Öhman, et al., 2001)
Figure 2. The results from the fear-relevant vs. fear-irrelevant experiment that Karolinska Institute Psychology students participated in.
In the methods of Öhman’s 2001 experiment, the volunteers consisted of Psychology students from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. While this study is highly regarded and I find it very fascinating, I have to wonder if the results will be replicated in other countries. For example, the Bothrops asper pit viper species (commonly known as fer-de-lance) is accountable for 46% of snake bites in Costa Rica (Cisneros-Heredia & Touzet, 2004). Additionally, the Sydney funnel-web spider (Atrax Robustus), reported to be very aggressive and highly venomous by Australian residents can produce possibly life-threatening symptoms in less than one hour (Ibister et al., 2005).
This leads me to question the evolutionary premise of these fears and phobias. Perhaps the Costa Rican and Australian citizens would be more predisposed to identifying snakes and spiders in Öhman’s experiment (2001), resulting in a much faster reaction time, despite whether they were feared by individuals or were just fear-relevant. On the other hand, in colder regions (lets say the Arctic) where cold-blooded snakes would not be able to survive, would potential participants from that area even show a fear response to that stimuli?
Öman’s research and experiments have changed the Psychology field, however; I believe for this theory to be fully concluded as fact, more experiments will have to be performed on citizens of different regions.
Cisneros-Heredia, D. F., & Touzet, J. M. (2004). Distribution and conservation status of Bothrops asper (Garman, 1884) in Ecuador. Herpetozoa, 17(3/4), 135-141.
Fear [Def. 1] in Oxford University Press. Oxford Living Dictionaries. From https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fear.
Isbister, G. K., Gray, M. R., Balit, C. R., Raven, R. J., Stokes, B. J., Porges, K., … & Fisher, M. M. (2005). Funnel-web spider bite: a systematic review of recorded clinical cases. Med J Aust, 182(8), 407-11.
Öhman, A., Flykt, A., & Esteves, F. (2001). Emotion drives attention: detecting the snake in the grass. Journal of experimental psychology: general, 130(3), 466.
Öhman, A. (2009). Of snakes and faces: An evolutionary perspective on the psychology of fear. Scandinavian journal of psychology, 50(6), 543-552.