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Snakes, Spiders, and the Science of Gender


Sep 25 2009
Why do women tend to be more afraid of creepy crawlies than men?

My toddler son is taking a class this fall about bugs. "Learn about insects and their important role in our environment and everyday lives through stories, crafts and games," the brochure boasts. "Great class for boys and girls!"

As long as I don't have to be one of those girls, I'm fine. I plan to spend the class time hanging out with my 6-month-old, as far away from the bugs as is legally allowed. While my son hears stories about spiders and makes crickets out of pipe cleaners and black plastic combs, I'll be doing something else—anything else. And while he and his classmates are tromping outdoors with boxes of live insects, I'll be practicing that Lamaze breathing that does nothing for labor pains—but perhaps does something for bug phobias.

According to a recent Boston Globe article, women are four times more likely than men to be afraid of bugs, spiders, snakes, and the like. Yet no discernible gender difference exists for specifically modern phobias (the article mentions needle injections and flying). Why is this?

To find out, David Rakison of Carnegie Mellon University conducted an experiment with 11-month-old infants. He showed them a series of pictures—a snake, a spider, a flower, and a mushroom—paired with either a happy face or a frightened face. Baby girls quickly associated the snake and the spider with the frightened face, reports Science News. Baby boys did not.

Rakison believes the discrepancy may be evolutionary in nature. In prehistoric times, he theorizes, snakes and spiders posed a greater threat to women than to men, in terms of the survival of the species, because children could not survive without their mothers. Thus, the female brain has evolved in such a way as to recognize this danger from an early age.

Debates about evolution aside (although feel free to take it up in the comments section!), I could probably come up with an alternative explanation for why girls are more afraid of snakes, at least, and it would probably run something like this: Snake tempts girl. Girl succumbs. Sedition, eviction, perdition.

Any takers?

Vanessa LoBue of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville also draws a different conclusion from Rakison's study. Infant girls associating fearful faces with snakes and spiders may have less to do with phobic gender disparity, LoBue says, and more with the possibility that girls can understand human facial expressions at a younger age. Perhaps both boys and girls are equally primed to fear snakes and spiders, but girls' advanced facial decoding gives them an advantage in Rakison's experiment.

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Snakes, Spiders, and the Science of Gender