A Case Study in Biophobia: Changes in Ophidiophobic Tendencies Throughout Life

This topic submitted by Jenny Germano and Leslie Blaha (germanjm@miamioh.edu) at 5:08 pm on 4/27/01. Additions were last made on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Section: Myers.

Degree of fear of snakes (ophidiophobia) was measured in 110 people, ages 1 to 73, in order to determine if there was a correlation between the degree of fear and the stage of life. All subjects were questioned on age, gender, ownership of pets, and childhood home environment. The reactions of thirty-nine pre-school and kindergarten age children to a corn snake were observed for fear reactions, both physical and verbal, as well as the change in comfort level in touching the snake as they learned about it. It was shown that there was an increase in fear/decrease in comfort level from childhood to adulthood. This decrease was shown in all age groups (childhood, adolescence, college-age, and adulthood). Across genders, the same downward trend was observed, though the males were, on average, more comfortable with snakes than the females. Pet ownership did not seem to make a significant difference in the degree of fear of snakes. A person’s childhood home environment also played correlated to the degree of ophidiophobia. People who grew up in both cities and rural areas showed a sharp increase in fear as age increased. The suburban subjects were very mixed and had an almost straight regression, showing little correlation between suburban environments and fear of snakes. The reactions of thirty-nine pre-school and kindergarten age children to a female corn snake were observed for fear reactions, both physical and verbal, as well as the change in comfort level in touching the snake as they learned about it. This may show that education and experience with snakes can strongly influence the comfort or fear one has in regards to snakes.

“The objective is to teach the student to see the land, to
understand what he sees, and to enjoy what he understands.”
-Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold and many of today’s environmental educators, whether they are conscious of it or not, are acting on the idea that culture and society can change or intensify our natural innate connections with nature. Edward O. Wilson coined the term biophilia to define this “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms” (1993). “Emotional affiliation” encompasses the entire scope of human emotions from love and hate to fear and fascination with organisms and aspects of the natural environment. Though the term biophilia is often used to refer to both positive and negative reactions, these reactions can be further classified into biophilia/love of nature and biophobia/fear of nature. In using the term innate, we are referring to that which is “hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature” (Wilson 1993).
Is there really an innate connection between people and nature? Wilson has been greatly criticized for this theory; after all, how can social and cultural attitudes towards the environment reside in genes? What implications does this hold in regards to culture; does culture really exist outside our genes? Is there a difference between an innate genetic affinity for nature or a culturally imposed response to the world around us? Can culture change a genetic predisposition? Can it intensify or diminish that predisposition? By changing cultural practices, can we influence our biophilic inclinations?
The America Psychiatric Association defines a phobia as an irrational fear, associated with the avoidance of objects or situations, that interferes with life (DSM-IV 1994). There are three categories of common phobias: social (people fear situations in which their actions are witnessed by other people), specific (a fear of a particular object or situation, such as hydrophobia, the fear of water), and agoraphobia (fear of being alone or trapped in an inescapable situation) (http://www.psych.org/public_info/phobias.cfm 1999). Although phobias are “common in general population, they rarely result in sufficient impairment or distress to warrant diagnosis” (DSM-IV 1994). Since people recognize their phobias as unreasonable and excessive, they general take measures to confront or overcome those fears; therefore, only about 10 percent of reported cases are life-long phobias (DSM-IV 1994).
There is considerable evidence that, to some degree, there is an innate aversion to snakes in humans, as well as other primate species. Pathological fear of snakes is called ophidiophobia, and it falls into the category of specific phobias. Ophidiophobia is characterized by a “feeling of panic, cold sweat, and wave of nausea” at the “mere appearance of a snake” (Wilson 1984).
Research on fear of snakes has been done to test the reactions of squirrel monkeys, Saimiri sciureus. Conducted in Japan, this study examined the reactions of “wild-born animals, laboratory-born animals who had been fed with small insects as well as fruits and monkey chow, and laboratory-born animals fed only with fruits and monkey chow,” and none of the groups were exposed to creatures other than the animals in that test group and humans (Masataka 1993). This experiment proved that wild-born animals and the animals fed small insects had more intense fear reactions to snakes than the animals that had no exposure to other creatures. Therefore, experience with any small creatures, and subsequently any aspect of nature, sensitizes a fear of snakes, another part of the natural environment (Masataka 1993). This study supports the idea that primates are biologically predisposed to fear the natural environment (biophobia).
In examining the fear of snakes in humans, differences in phobic reactions have been observed across gender and age lines. Specific phobias are more prevalent among woman than men (Fredrikson 1997; Fredrikson 1996), implying that either a difference in the genetic structure of women increases their biophobia, or they are taught to fear more than men are. One study showed that the fear of animals decreased with age, particularly when situational fears increased with age (Fredrikson 1996). People with a familial history of ophidiophobia are more prone to fearing snakes themselves, and the fear is probably passed down through some combination of genetic imprinting and education (Fredrikson 1997). These studies show that vulnerability to snake phobias is, in some manner, connected to the genetics of a person and, therefore, innate. They also imply that the intensity of the fear is a result of exposure and education.
The theory of gene-culture coevolution presents a means of explaining how genetics and culture can work together to produce biophilic and biophobic predispositions in humans. This theory is a branch of theoretical population genetics that synthesizes these two means of transmitting human characteristics through generations (Durham 1991). The two systems reflect each other; a certain gene will dispose a person to certain behaviors. If these behaviors are encouraged by the culture, then that gene will probably have a higher reproductive/survival rate and will begin to dominate. As a result, such behaviors will proliferate throughout the culture, encouraging further reproduction, and so forth. Hence, culture becomes encoded in the genes of humans (Durham 1991).
In the case of snakes, primate ancestors of humans who had harmful interactions with snakes developed a fear and aversion for them. In time, such aversion proliferated, and combined with other negative snake experiences. Therefore, as people evolved, they were genetically predisposed to fear snakes and born into a culture that strategically avoided them. As part of nature, humans are fascinated by snakes, too, which also developed in the primates and seen in their vocal warnings (Wilson 1993). Thus is it genetically advantageous to fear snakes, because they pose a threat to species survival.
The gene-culture coevolution of snakes is clear in modern culture. Images of snakes and serpents fill stories, myths and dreams, such as the serpent that tested Adam and Eve in the Bible or the evil cobra in the Disney movie Aladdin. “The mind is primed to react emotionally to the sight of snakes, not just to fear them but to be aroused and absorbed in their details, to weave stories about them” (Wilson 1984). These archetypal images are a part of the subconscious understanding that humans have of the world, serving to increase both the fascination with and fear of snakes. Thus, the process of socialization heightens a genetic predisposition. “Human beings have…an innate propensity to learn such fear [of snakes] quickly and easily past the age of five” (Wilson 1984).
If some of this fear is learned, then, can it be unlearned? Wilson argues that the process of socialization can be reversed. “It is possible to turn the mind in the opposite direction, to learn to handle snakes without apprehension or even to like them in some special way…but the adaptation takes a special effort and is usually a little forced and self-conscious” (Wilson 1984). But are people willing to devote the effort to unlearning a natural fear? Would they really be changing the nature of their relationship with snakes? Or are they merely temporarily subduing their phobia, which could resurface at any moment?
Anthropologist Jared Diamond studied New Guinean tribesmen, who “furnish some of our best surviving models of the human conditions that have prevailed for a millennia” (Wilson 1993). If any innate affiliation with nature exists, then it will be clear in these people who have not been corrupted by technological societies. When Diamond investigated fear of snakes among New Guineans, he found that they “possess no generalized fear” (Wilson 1993); in fact, they scoff at the idea of fearing all snakes. In New Guinean cultures, the people have a strong knowledge of which species are poisonous and which are not, because their survival depends on dealing with both kinds (Wilson 1993). This case study is strong evidence that general fear of snakes is not completely innate, and can be unlearned according to cultural needs. This shows that for a culture, like the American one we are studying, that has no urgent need to recognize poisonous/non-poisonous snakes may be better off fearing all snakes rather than putting itself in danger.
In a study on children’s relationships to nature, Judith Heerwagen and Gordon Orians wrote, “relationships of children to their environments typically change gradually from infancy to adulthood” (Heerwagen & Orians). These changes in relationships, they argue, go through stages depending on which knowledge is needed and advantageous to possess at a particular stage of life. Fear is one characteristic of many stages of life, because it is a useful tool for “coping with dangers” (Heerwagen & Orians). Therefore, people of different ages will possess different specific fears, “because risks and vulnerability are age-dependent.” “For instance, Agras et al. (1969) found that fear of snakes begins around age 2 and continues to rise until about age 12. Thereafter it slowly declines, but it continues to remain high even into adulthood” (Heerwagen & Orians). Heerwagen and Orians also acknowledged “social environment and learning exert strong influences on what people fear” (Heerwagen & Orians).
Developing an understanding of biophilia and gathering empirical data that proves the theory is key in understanding the role of humans in the natural world. If humans continue to think of themselves as separate from nature, then we need to, at least, position ourselves against the environment in some logical way; biophilia provides this logical means. Applications of the biophilia hypothesis could be integral in the preservation of the remaining natural resources of the planet. If people recognize their fundamental connection to and need for nature, they will be more reluctant to simply destroy it. Environmental education, as mentioned earlier, is one means of helping the general population understand its biophilia, and informed citizens make informed decisions, which is particularly important when the issues affect the fundamental characteristics of our species.
We suspect that people do have innate connections with nature, both positive and negative, and that this connection changes throughout the course of life. We are going to explore biophobia by studying the reactions to and fears of snakes, particularly in relation to age. In studying ophidiophobia, we see three possibilities concerning the relationship between degree of fear and stage of life, if it is true that fear changes with age. One pattern is that the fear of snakes decreases with age; that is, as one gets older, s/he grows to fear snakes less and may even move to liking them. The second pattern is an increase in fear with an increase in age; this would show that people grow more fearful throughout life. The final pattern is a Gaussian bell curve shape, showing that fear of snakes is minimal in children, peaks in adolescence, when one feel most vulnerable, and then returns to minimal as one ages further. Of course, there is also the possibility that no correlation exists. We hypothesize that, through our test of fear of snakes in relation to age, older people will have a more heightened phobia than young children.
If our hypothesis proves correct, it could hold many implications for environmental education. It may show that biophilic and biophobic impulses can be actively influenced by social and cultural sources. In this case, by changing certain cultural beliefs and practices relating to the environment we can produce a nation of citizens who are more concerned and actively involved in preserving our natural resources.

We survey 110 people from ages 1 to 73. This survey gathered information about age, gender, childhood home environment, ownership of pets, experience with snakes, comfort level around snakes, and willingness to handle snakes (See appendix A). Two versions of the survey were used. For adults, the survey was simply questions with easy-to-circle answers and two places for comments. The survey for children had the same questions, slightly reworded for simplification, and included pictures to help them answer the questions. Survey data was obtained from random sampling around Miami University, from our in-class presentation, from Proximity Marketing (Cleveland, Ohio), from Oxford area soccer teams, and from random sampling in Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio.
In addition to gathering empirical data, we observed reactions of young children to a snake. On Monday, April 9, 2001, we took Louise, a corn snake, to the Hanna House preschool at Miami University. There we met with three groups of students, totaling 39 children, to show them Louise. The first group consisted of three and four year olds; the second group was four and five year olds, and the final group was kindergarten students, ages five to six. The presentation lasted approximately 25 minutes. First, we introduced Louise and explained the proper way to pet her; then Jenny allowed each student, if s/he so desired, to pet Louise. She then gave a general explanation of the eating habits, life processes, and facts about snakes in addition to answering questions. At the end of the presentation, the students were given one more chance to touch the snake. Leslie made observations throughout the presentations as to the reactions of the students to the snake and how some of the reactions changed throughout the course of the presentation. She also counted how many of the children would not touch the snake at the beginning and end of the talk.
After collecting our data, we entered the results into Stat View. We used the variables of age, gender, type of childhood home environment, and ownership of pets to analyze the fear ratings of the people that we surveyed. We performed basis descriptive statistics, ANOVA tests, regressions, and unpaired t-tests to obtain our results.

The regression analysis comparing age to fear rating showed a decreasing regression, though the correlation coefficient was only .086 (Figure 1). This downward trend carried through to the remaining regression curves comparing fear rating to age separated by gender, childhood home, and possession of pets (Figures 2-8). When the age groups are divided and analyzed, the clear downward trend holds for the adolescent age group, where the correlation coefficient is .231 (Figure 10). The ANOVA tests for these regressions show that there is a significant difference in the age v. fear rating analysis, with a p-value of .0019 (Table 1). There is also a significant difference in the male regression, with a p-value of .0291 (Table 3), though there was not a significant difference in the regression for female fears (Table 2). For the regressions analyzing childhood home environments, there was only a significant difference in the rural environment, with a p-value of .0285 (Table 8). Although it does not have a statistically significant p-value when using a 5% cut-off, the city p-value was .0671, a noticeable difference from the suburban rating of .4738 (Table 6 & 7). In looking at the pet ownership regressions, there was a significant difference in the regression for pet owners, showing a p-value of .0027 (Table 4), but there was no significant difference for non-owners (Table 5).
Descriptive statistics run on the various age groups, the average fear rating for all groups was 5.573. The average for each age category decreased as the ages increased; the average comfort rating for young children was 7.167, and the average rating for adults 4.515 (Table 15). The unpaired t-tests for the age groups showed significant differences between the young children and college ages (p-value of .0330) and between the young children and adults (p-value of .0026) (Table 16). The unpaired t-tests comparing genders showed a significant difference between males and females, having a p-value of .0002 (Table 10). The descriptive statistics for gender show the male average comfort level to be higher than the female average (Table 9).
The results for childhood home environments show that the average comfort level is highest for rural environments and lowest for people raised in city environments, with averages of 5.926 and 4.154 respectively (Table 11). The unpaired t-test results comparing the three types of childhood environments show that there is not a significant difference between any of these environments (Table 12). Pet ownership results show little variance in comfort level between those who own pets and those who do not (Table 13) and there is no significant difference, according to the unpaired t-test (Table 14).
In addition to survey results and analyses, we collected observations of fear and non-fear reactions to snakes from the children at the Hanna House at Miami University. Of the 39 children, there were 8 children, or 20.5%, who would not approach or touch the snake. After the second round of petting, only 3 children, or 7.6%, never touched the snake (Figures 13 and 14). There were 2 verbal fear reactions. In each group of children, they approached the snake with trepidation and excitement, petting only with one finger and quickly pulling that finger away. The presence of the snake evoked lots of questions and stories from the children.

Few absolute conclusions can be drawn from our study, but the conclusions that we did come to form a strong platform for further research. Our primary conclusion is that the fear of snakes does increase with age. In addition to the significant differences of fear between childhood age groups and adult groups, the strongest regression for increasing fear appeared in the adolescent group implicating that fear might increase due to higher vulnerability and insecurity during the teenage years. This coincides with the aforementioned study by Heerwagen and Orians that showed that “risks and vulnerability are age dependent.”
It is not clear exactly why this change occurs; however, our study does point toward the possible influences of gender and childhood environment on the change in fear. On average, males had a higher comfort level than females throughout all age groups, though this comfort level decreased in the same fashion as that of the females studied. Child development and gender research has showed a difference in the socialization of young girls and boys in our society. This may be the root cause of the appearance of different fear levels in relation to snakes. Frederikson’s study of gender and fear showed that women are more afraid of animals than men are (1996). Our study agreed with this but went one step further to show that this difference was carried across age groups.
In addition to gender, our data clearly shows that childhood home environment plays a part developing a fear of snakes. For the suburban environment group, the regression correlation was very low, indicating that there was a wide variety of comfort levels within and across age groups. This group did not show the same increase in fear with age as the city and rural groups did. This could be attributed to the fact that the suburban environments in general are very variable, resulting in a wider range of childhood experiences. Both the city and rural groups showed steep increases in fear with increasing age. The city environment may limit a child’s interaction with the natural world, possibly leading to a greater fear of snakes as a result of the lack of experiences. The similarity between the rural group and city group counters our initial expectations. We originally thought that these two groups would be at opposite extremes, since we supposed that greater exposure to nature in a rural environment would decrease fear of snakes.
According to our current pet results, having or not having pets does not influence a person’s comfort level with snakes. This was somewhat surprising, since we assumed that having pets would transfer the comfort around other animals to comfort around snakes. Perhaps though, as our study indicates, this comfort and affection towards a specific animal is not transferable to others.
Our interactions with the preschool students at the Hanna House clearly demonstrated that education and experience played a great part in increasing children’s comfort with snakes. The children became more at ease with the snake the longer they interacted with and watched Jenny handle it. Over the twenty minute presentation, there was a clear change in attitude as they became more vocal and anxious to touch the snake. This shows that positive exposure and education can have an important positive impact on children’s degree of comfort with snakes.
Our study left a great deal of questions unanswered and much room for further research. We would have liked to delve into more specifics of people’s childhood environments, gathering more information on relocation throughout childhood, whether they had a yard or not, where in the country they grew up, parental attitudes towards nature, etc. The same applies to our pet question. We would have liked to investigate the types of pets that people had, when they had them, how many they owned, how they obtained them, etc. We would have also liked to focus a part of our survey more specifically on individual experiences and incidents with snakes in people’s lives, as traumatic events may have influenced phobic tendencies. We would have also liked to have collected more surveys from the two extremes of the age spectrum. Such further research would help clarify the trends we have found and provide evidence as to why these trends exist.

Works Cited
1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). Washington, D.C., American Psychiatric Press: 1994.
2. Diamond, Jared. “New Guineans and Their Natural World.” From The Biophilia Hypothesis. Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, eds. Island Press, Washington, D.C.: 1993.
3. Durham, William H. Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1991.
4. Fredrikson, Mats; Annas, Peter; Wik, Gustav. “Parental history, aversive exposure and the development of snake and spider phobia in women.” Behaviour Research and Therapy, Volume: 35, Issue: 1, January, 1997, pp. 23-28.
5. Fredrikson, Mats, et al. “Gender and age differences in the prevalence of specific fears and phobias.” Behaviour Research and Therapy, Volume: 34, Issue: 1, January, 1996, pp. 33-39.
6. Heerwagen, Judith H. and Gordon H. Orians. “The Ecological World of Children.”
7. “Let’s Talk Facts About…Phobias.” American Psychiatric Association online. http://www.psych.org/public_info/phobias.cfm. 1999.
8. Masataka, Nobuo. “Effects of experience with live insects on the development of fear of snakes in squirrel monkeys, Saimiri sciureus.” Animal Behaviour, Volume: 46, Issue: 4, October 1993, pp. 741 – 746.
9. Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass: 1984.
10. Wilson, Edward O. “Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic.” From The Biophilia Hypothesis. Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, eds. Island Press, Washington, D.C.: 1993.

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