Research Indicates that Females are Genetically Programmed to Fear Spiders

An article published in the New Scientist magazine has caused a bit of stir and certainly divided our office as we weigh up the implications of its conclusions.   A team of psychologists from the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, carried out a study amongst children under a year old to test any built-in emotions and responses they may have had to pictures of Arachnids.

The researchers have concluded that females associate spiders with fear more than males of a similar age, the boys seemed to react with a considerable degree of indifference.

Dr. David Rakison and his team tested ten girls and ten boys, all aged 11-months showing them pictures of spiders to see how they would respond.  Dr. Rakison showed the study group images of a spider next to a frightened cartoon face and a spider next to happy cartoon face.

The team’s report, the basis of the New Scientist article, concludes that the girls examined the picture containing the happy face for longer than the picture of the scared face.  However, the boys in the test group looked at both images for an equal amount of time.  The researchers have concluded that the girls found the happy face associated with the spider puzzling as they were expecting to see a spider associated with a frightened expression.

Although the subject group is very small (a sample of 20 children), the psychologists have proposed that their results show that girls have a genetic predisposition to fear and loathe spiders in contrast with the boys who remain indifferent.

Writing in the scientific journal – Evolution and Human Behaviour, Dr. Rakison stated:

“The experiments show that female 11-month-olds – but not males of the same age – learn the relation between a negative facial expression and fear-relevant stimuli such as snakes and spiders”.

A number of explanations have been put forward to explain these results.  For example, could the difference in attitude towards creepy-crawlies be explained by the roles adopted by our ancestors.  Females were gatherers, working in groups with the children present to gather food, whilst the males were out hunting, with the chance that few children and other vulnerable tribe members would be involved with such an activity.

Women had to be wary of such creatures, whereas men used more risky behaviour in order to ensure a successful hunt.  Having seen some pretty impressive invertebrates on our travels, creatures such as giant millipedes, tarantulas and orb spiders, the boys in the office remain divided whether they are any braver than the girls.  However, with the Autumn weather now descending upon us (what Summer?), we do agree that when it comes to rescuing wolf spiders it is the guys who usually have to step in.

Personally, spiders don’t bother me too much, having had a few big ones creep over me in various parts of the world, they can be a little frightening, but I always think that the spider is more likely to be far more afraid of me than I am of it.  Still it is nice to act all chivalrous and brave and protect the fairer sex from the little beasties.

Snakes on the other hand…

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