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“The itsy-bitsy spider went up the waterspout. Down came the rain, and washed the spider out…”

At which point a large percentage of us screamed and ran the other way, because surveys show that one fifth of men and a third of women are frightened of arachnids.

It makes sense, right? Spiders can be poisonous.

But so are stinging insects such as bees and wasps, and yet we seem to hate spiders more. At the University of Wurzburg, Germany, psychologist Georg Alpers asked 76 students to rate photos of spiders, wasps, bees, beetles, butterflies and moths on how much fear and disgust they inspired and how dangerous they were. Spiders topped the list in all three categories—even though all bees can sting, but only some spiders are poisonous.

So are we born with a fear of spiders, or is it something we learn, something that perhaps, as Stuart Hine, an entomologist at London’s Natural History Museum, told New Scientist magazine “stems back to the days of plagues when people suspected anything that crawled out of the thatch as carrying disease.”

Certainly we seem to be born with the ability to recognize spiders over other objects. Recently New Scientist reported on the research of David Rakison of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who showed five-month-old babies simple representations of spiders, made up of block-like shapes, plus other, more jumbled, images made of the same shapes.

He found that the babies looked at the “spiders” for an average of 24 seconds, but at the jumbled images for only around 16 seconds—a full eight seconds less. That suggests babies are born with a “mental template” for spider shapes, and possibly for other things that could harm us (snakes comes to mind).

For safe objects, however, no such template seems to exist. Rakison repeated his experiment with a representation of a flower. The babies didn’t spend any more time looking at that than they did looking at the images made with jumbled shapes.

Now New Scientist has reported on a new study by Rakison, one that suggests not only that fear of spiders is something that is learned sometime after birth, but also suggests women learn that fear more readily than men—which explains why more women than men fear spiders.

This time Rakison worked with 11-month-olds. In the training phase of the test he showed 10 girls and 10 boys a picture of a spider alongside a fearful face. In the following phase he showed them the image of a spider alongside a happy face, and then the image of a flower paired with a fearful face.

He found that even when the spider was paired with a happy face, the girls looked at it significantly longer than at the flower, which he interpreted as meaning that after the initial phase, the girls had already learned to link spiders with fear. The boys, on the other hand, spent the same amount of time looking at both images: they hadn’t made that assumption.

With a different group of babies, Rakison skipped the training phase featuring the spider with the fearful face, and simply showed them a spider with a happy face and a flower with a fearful face. This time both boys and girls looked at the images for the same length of time.

That implies both that babies don’t have an inborn fear of spiders and that girls are more prone than boys to develop that fear.

Rakison thinks girls may be more inclined than boys to learn to fear all kinds of dangerous animals, a gender difference which may have evolved during humanity’s long hunter-gatherer phase, when to be successful at hunting men had to be more willing to take risks, whereas women had to be good at avoiding dangerous animals, including spiders.

Acquiring, rather than being born with, a fear of spiders also makes sense, Rakison says, since there’s no point in an infant fearing spiders until it can respond to them in some way, by crawling away, for instance.

More mature responses include screaming, running, climbing on chairs or smashing the nasty little eight-legged monstrosity into paste with repeated blows of a…

Sorry. Got a little carried away.

Spiders. Yecch.

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