There is Nothing to Fear Except What Your Parents Do

Study of children shows fears are learned and are not innate

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) A new Rutgers University study indicates children "learn" fear from outside sources and are not born with an innate dread of creepy-crawlies or things that go bump in the night.

In one experiment of the study, researchers showed videos to babies and children as young as 7 months while the children listened to audio recordings of either happy or fearful noises. One of the videos featured a snake and the other a more benign creature, such as an elephant. Upon hearing the fearful voice, the children spent more time looking at the snake video, but did not show any fear themselves.

Another experiment involved 3-year-olds who were shown a screen of nine photographs ranging from snakes to flowers. The toddlers were asked to select photographs on the screen, and they identified snakes more readily than flowers and animals that look similar to snakes, suggesting humans have biases to quickly detect things like snakes and spiders and associate them with something "yucky or bad," like a fearful voice, said researcher Vanessa LoBue. 

The study suggests children can differentiate between scary and benign creatures but that the fear is learned and not an innate response.

When fears become irrational, intense and persistent, they are known as phobias and may require psychiatric intervention. Phobias can range from the common (such as a fear of dogs or rabies known as cynophobia) to the obscure (such as fear of dolls, known as pediophobia).

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 28, 2011
Last Updated:
February 2, 2011