Location Dependency and Fear Cognition

Location Dependency and Fear Cognition

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).

f8tr   Figure 1. An example of finding a fear-relevant object surrounded by fear-irrelevant objects. (Öhman, et al., 2001)

dsnamnfbsamFigure 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.


8 thoughts on “Location Dependency and Fear Cognition

  1. Based on your blog, I start to think about some truth about this study can have impact on the exposure treatment of phobias. The patient having a snake phobia who know better of local snakes may receive a better treatment effect if exposed to what he or she recognizes as a highly dangerous snake. The study I find has a positive result on this statement. But probably this is not true. Specific phobia is usually caused by some early life traumatic experience. The imagery stimulus to this kind of patients may not be fearful due to the truth of danger or . Rather, they are reflected to the fear itself.

    Hunt, M., Bylsma, L., Brock, J., Fenton, M., Goldberg, A., Miller, R., . . . Urgelles, J. (2006). The role of imagery in the maintenance and treatment of snake fear. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 37(4), 283-298. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2005.12.002


  2. I found an interesting paper that looked at the fear of snakes specifically being a result of evolution. It seems to have been widely accepted that fears develop because of survival instincts. Now several studies have been done and have been inconclusive of this theory. The paper actually noted that most research pertaining to fear involves observing individual’s reactions to fear stimulus. More research should be done on how experiences with things like snakes affect the fear of them. Certain individuals may not be afraid of snakes because they have not had many negative experiences with them and are more educated about how dangerous they really are statistically. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.uleth.ca/docview/1462345693?pq-origsite=summon


    1. Thank you for your reply Sarah! 🙂 I would agree! I personally own several snakes, and do not find them frightening at all, however perhaps if I was to participate in Ohmans study, my reaction times would be conclusive with his hypothesis, maybe not because I’m afraid, but because I find them cute! 🙂 Your reply has been super informative, thank you!


  3. Hey there Dakota!
    I really enjoyed reading your topic for this weeks blog, as I find evolutionary psychology to be particularly fascinating. You raise an interesting idea about whether or not these fear-relevant stimuli would remain category-specific across different populations. I personally suspect that the underlying neural circuitry for fear-responses towards snakes would have evolved early-on during our ancestry, probably millions of years ago in Africa. Therefore, I suspect that even human populations that have lived in frozen-areas for hundreds of thousands of years would retain a fear of snakes, because the neural circuitry responsible for such a reaction was likely formed so long ago. During my subsequent research I discovered that the neural circuitry for the amygdala, responsible in part for defense behaviours, actually likely evolved in response to dangerous reptiles, particularly snakes, approximately 100 million years ago. Our ancestors at this time were small mole-like creatures, who would have been heavily predated upon by snakes. Because of the early-evolution of this phobia, at a point in our evolution that is shared by all modern humans, it is a likely assumption that all human populations will retain some fear of snakes, whether or not snakes currently populate their chosen geographical location. Kind of an interesting way to think of things!
    Best regards,




    1. Thank you for your response Micah! You make a very fascinating point! I believe you’re right, and that even people who haven’t been exposed to a specific stimuli in thousands of years would still exhibit some sort of fear response! 🙂 Thank you again!


  4. Hey Dakota! I was really curious as to why people have less reactions to the things that were fear relevant to them, and I came across exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is exposing patients to things that they are afraid of, to create less fear toward the things that they fear. In Costa Rica and Sydney I was thinking that because people are more exposed to snakes and spiders, and are more aware of them, that that would be as to why they would have a less reaction to the things that they fear. I also found 4 practices in how exposure therapy is done.

    Vivo exposure: When a person directly does or holds the things that they are afraid of.

    Imaginal exposure: A person is to deeply and image the thing that causes fear.

    Virtual reality exposure: Putting a person into a situation that is similar to the things that they are afraid of. This is usually done using virtual reality technology, and can counteract when Vivo exposure is not possible.

    Interoceptive exposure: In a situation where someone’s fears affects their body in some way, they can replace that part of the body that the fear affects, with a physical aspect. With someone who panics, they might trying running to counteract with their panics, as running would increase their heart rate


    1. Hey Ashley!
      I think that you did a great job with your hypothesis about exposure therapy and fear responses. It was also very interesting to read about the different types of exposure therapy. When I first read the blog-post, I was very confused about why people would have a slower reaction time towards fear-relevant stimulus, since that seemed unadaptive. However, after reading the cited studies, I now realize that by “lower reaction time”, she means to say that it took them less time to react, making their reaction times faster. In the original study it says that “Fear-relevant pictures” ended up being found “more quickly than fear-irrelevant ones”, indicating a faster reaction time for fear-relevant stimuli. It’s an easy mistake to make though, and one that I made the first time around as well. Thanks for your post and take care!



    2. Hello Ashley! Thank you for the reply! That is a very interesting notion! I hadn’t thought about that! Perhaps you’re right, and Costa Rican and Australian citizens would exhibit a slower reaction time! 🙂 Thank you very much, again!


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