Good Question: Why are some people afraid of snakes?

Good Question

Natalia meets Nate the snake.

Reporter Stephan Rockefeller is to blame for this week’s Good Question.

He made the slithery find in his backyard one night. Excited, he caught the snake and put it in a pickle jar. (The pickles ended up in a plastic bag because he’s civilized. I’m not sure what his wife thought.)

Now that he was the proud owner of a garter snake, he had to show it to others in a grand way. So of course he brought it to work. And of course he slid it under a door. And of course fellow reporter Natalia Hepworth freaked. (See the video, which, by the way, we shared with Natalia’s permission.)

One of our other co-workers had an even better reaction — louder screams have never been heard at EastIdahoNews.com — but unfortunately that wasn’t caught on video.

Not all of us thought the snake was that horrifying, however. I was thrilled to have my reptilian amigo, which I named Nate, next to my computer for most of the day. And a third co-worker nearly lost her mind when she passed my desk.

This made us wonder: Why do some people panic when they see a snake, and others don’t?

Nate the snake’s adventures at EastIdahoNews.com.

For years, people have said we have an innate fear of snakes because it’s an evolutionary advantage. You really don’t want to take on a rattlesnake with your bare hands! And if you happen to be scared of a harmless snake like Nate, well, that’s just a side-effect.

But it may not be that simple.

According to a 2011 study, we don’t have an innate fear of snakes but an innate bias to fear them. Small children simply aren’t afraid of snakes, though they do learn quickly.

From a news release from the Association of Psychological Science:

“In one set of experiments, they showed infants as young as 7 months old two videos side by side—one of a snake and one of something non-threatening, such as an elephant. At the same time, the researchers played either a fearful voice or a happy voice. The babies spent more time looking at the snake videos when listening to the fearful voices, but showed no signs of fear themselves.”

This supports previous studies, which show it’s easier for humans and monkeys to fear threatening things than non-threatening things. For example, a Swedish study showed “you can teach people to associate an electric shock with either photos of snakes and spiders or photos of flowers and mushrooms — but the effect lasts a lot longer with the snakes and spiders.”

As with all things, some people are more biased than others. One of my co-workers who freaked out mentioned she had a bad experience with a snake when she was a girl, and that probably solidified her innate bias to fear them.

Columnist Robert Patten with his new BFF, Nate. | Stephan Rockefeller, EastIdahoNews.com

As for Natalia, she says snakes don’t terrify her. Not really.

“It’s not that I’m afraid of snakes, necessarily, but more just creeped out,” she said. “They make me uncomfortable. They look unnatural because they don’t have legs!”

For his part, Nate appeared to overcome his bias against humans fairly quickly. At first, he would flinch back whenever my fingers would approach the jar, but he eventually mellowed out. Or maybe he just got tired from all the attention.

I can’t confirm any of that, though, because Nate is no longer available for interviews. We set him free that afternoon, and he hasn’t stopped by for another visit.

If he does, I’m sure everyone around here will let me know.

Do you have a Good Question about anything? Send it to Robert! Email him at questions@eastidahonews.com, or visit him on Twitter @notthegeneral or Facebook.

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