Where infants and pre-schoolers show fear of spiders, snakes and heights, it is usually related to the occurrence of the same fears in parents.

Researchers have been fascinated for years by the question of how the fear of spiders, snakes, heights and strangers emerges. At eight to 10 months, babies already show particular attention towards snakes and spiders, avoid heights, and react to a stranger’s approach It is highly tempting to interpret this as fear and attribute it toevolution. The idea is that these things represent danger and threaten survival, and so we have evolved to avoid them. Psychoanalytic and attachment theories also offer an appealing explanation for the fear of strangers. It may be too much to say that these fears are hard-wired from birth, but, as one theory goes, they are “prepared”, meaning that the fears are especially easy to acquire and difficult to remove.

Researchers have paid particular attention to the fear of spiders, snakes, heights and strangers, setting up innumerable experiments to show their emergence. But much of this research is flawed. Situations are set up where fear is expected, and the child’s reactions are then over-interpreted as fear, influenced too much by how adults would expect themselves to react. 

In a review of the evidence, two researchers have examined and challenged much of the research and come to a wholly different conclusion about how fear of spiders and the like emerge: these phobias are actually picked up from parents and peers.

Four challenges to existing research 

The researchers’ first observation is that infants do not show fear of spiders, snakes, heights and strangers, but are actually rather interested in them and want to explore them more.

Babies do show more immediate attention to snakes and spiders, and, if the images are shown at the same time as a soundtrack of fearful voices, their attention is even greater. The infants appear to be particularly interested in spiders and snakes. They reach out to touch a screen showing them. They actually appear to like spiders and snakes, spending more time peering into tanks containing these creatures, often with faces glued to the glass.

Infants’ reactions to heights are similar. When confronted with steep drops, slopes, bridges and gaps, they spend most of the time peering over the edge and exploring it with hands and feet. And while they do this, their expressions are predominantly positive or neutral. Many appear to be enjoying themselves. 

And babies often pay increased attention to strangers, smiling and offering toys. In laboratory tests, infants don’t tend to react negatively to the presence of a stranger, even in an unfamiliar environment. 

The second observation about existing research is that many of the reactions that researchers interpret as fear cannot really be considered symptoms of fear at all. Rapidly noticing and being interested in spiders and snakes is not the same as fear of spiders and snakes. Similarly, avoiding a cliff edge does not equate with fear. As noted above, during all their exploratory probing, checking, testing and attempting, infants rarely display negative emotions. Even a raised heartbeat is not necessarily a sign of fear; the infants are often smiling when their heartbeat goes up. Furthermore, a baby does not respond more negatively to an objectively more dangerous situation—a wider gap to cross, say, or a longer distance to fall. We do not tend to attribute fear to an animal’s avoidance of a steep drop and, the authors argue, we should see infants in the same way. Similarly with strangers – displaying a serious expression or ceasing to play when a stranger enters is unlikely to denote fear.

The third observation is that the infant’s reaction depends on the context in which the encounter is taking place. Children react more positively to strangers when they are at home and/or with a parent. If a stranger approaches rapidly and then touches or tries to pick up an infant, the child is likely to respond more negatively. But even in an experiment where infants were seated alone on the floor and were picked up by a stranger, 40% carried on smiling or were neutral.

Finally, infants’ response depends on their own temperament or abilities. Novice crawlers and walkers will walk right over a steep drop, but after time and practice, they can tell the difference between a trivial situation and an impossible one (such as a drop that’s too far or a gap that’s too wide). If the obstacle is impossible, they are likely to start exploring it, for example, by poking an arm or leg into the precipice or over the gap. They also start looking for alternatives, such as holding a support post,or shifting their posture from upright to prone, sitting and backing positions. If they are wearing a weight on their shoulders, or are wearing slippery shoes, they become more cautious. In relation to strangers, some infants are temperamentally more fearful than others and tend to react more negatively. 

Ironically, despite all the attention to the growth of the fear of spiders, snakes, heights and strangers, these fears are actually not that prevalent at all. Fear of spiders, snakes and heights is not widely reported in infants or pre-schoolers. Only 5% of adults report a phobia of heights, and 3-6% report a phobia of spiders and snakes. Fear of strangers is so rare among adults that it does not even have a name. A related problem, social phobia/anxiety, affects about 11% of the population.

The real source of the fear of spiders, snakes, heights and strangers: parents and friends

When infants and preschoolers are afraid of spiders, snakes and heights, it is usually related to the same fears in their parents. There is evidence that 89% of intense fears found in preschool-aged children come from threatening verbal information from parents or friends or seeing something in the media. Similarly, children may watch their parents responding fearfully to something and learn from that. In one experiment, 12-month-olds were more fearful about crossing over a 30cm drop when their mothers showed a fearful face, and less fearful when seeing their mothers happy.

How fear emerges 

The authors describe an “emergent” model of fear. Fear does not cause responses. Rather, fear emerges from a series of appraisals about the significance of an event. Early on, areas of the brain such as the amygdala are activated and arouse the body in preparation for possible action. Physiological changes like increased heart rate and sweating are registered in subsequent appraisals, combined with further interpretations of the event. Fear emerges at the end of the process, when a threat is perceived to be imminent.

How future research on fear should be framed

The researchers recommend more precision about defining fear. They propose the presence of a negative emotional reaction and, in addition, at least one other response, for example, a behavioural response like avoidance, or a physiological response like increased heart rate. Also, the response should increase as the threat increases. In much research, words like “fear”, “anxiety” and “wariness” are used interchangeably.

The authors suggest that it might be more useful in the future to examine the different manifestations of fear in different children in response to the same situation, and then try to explain these differences.

Header photo: Quinn Dombrowski. Creative Commons. 


 LoBue V & Adolph KE (2019), Fear in infancy: Lessons from snakes, spiders, heights and strangers, Developmental Psychology 55.9