Detecting the Snake in the Grass
Attention to Fear-Relevant Stimuli by Adults and
Vanessa LoBue and Judy S. DeLoache
University of Virginia
ABSTRACT—Snakes are among the most common targets of
fears and phobias. In visual detection tasks, adults detect
their presence more rapidly than the presence of other
kinds of visual stimuli. We report evidence that very young
children share this attentional bias. In three experiments,
preschool children and adults were asked to ﬁnd a single
target picture among an array of eight distractors. Both
the children and the adults detected snakes more rapidly
than three types of nonthreatening stimuli (ﬂowers, frogs,
and caterpillars). These results provide the ﬁrst evidence
of enhanced visual detection of evolutionarily relevant
threat stimuli in young children.
Many people—perhaps most—have had the experience of sud-
denly feeling frightened by thepresence of a snake basking in the
sun on the path ahead or nearly hidden in the grass alongside.
Such fearful reactions occur relatively frequently, as most people
have a negative orientation to snakes, and snakes constitute one
of the most common objects of intense fears and phobias (Fred-
rikson, Annas, Rischer, & Wik, 1996; King, 1997). Fearful re-
actions to snakes have also been observed in a variety of
nonhuman primates (e.g., Cook & Mineka, 1989; Yerkes, 1943).
The prevalence of snake fear has led some theorists (e.g.,
¨hman & Mineka, 2001; Seligman, 1970) to consider it to be an
example of prepared learning, the idea being that humans have
an evolved predisposition to associate snakes with fear. Ac-
cording to this view, poisonous snakes (and spiders) constituted
a recurrent threat to survival throughout most of mammalian
evolution, so animals that quickly learned to avoid them were
more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass on their genes.
Consequently, a tendency to readily learn to fear snakes evolved
in humans and other mammals.
Empirical support for prepared learning of snake fear in hu-
mans has come from research with adults showing superior
conditioning of fear-relevant responses (e.g., heart rate accel-
eration) to snake stimuli (see O
¨hman & Mineka, 2001, for a
review). Evidence for prepared learning in nonhuman primates
has come from research by Mineka and her colleagues (Cook &
Mineka, 1989; O
¨hman & Mineka, 2001) showing that monkeys
very rapidly learn to fear snakes simply from seeing another
monkey react fearfully to the presence of a snake.
In a related vein, O
¨hman (1993; O
¨hman & Mineka, 2001)
proposed the existence of an evolved fear module—a neural
system that is selectively sensitive to evolutionarily relevant
threat stimuli. The evolutionary claim is that individuals who
more rapidly detected the stimulus attributes signifying the
presence of a poisonous snake or a spider would have been more
likely to escape the danger and hence to survive and reproduce.
As a consequence, a mechanism supporting the rapid detection
of this type of dangerous stimulus evolved.
The claim for the existence of a bias toward the rapid detec-
tion of evolutionarily relevant threat stimuli has received em-
pirical support from visual search studies showing faster
detection of fear-relevant than fear-irrelevant stimuli. O
Flykt, and Esteves (2001) presented participants with matrices
consisting of pictures of snakes (fear relevant) and ﬂowers (fear
irrelevant). One of the two types of stimuli was designated the
target, and each matrix included either a single target or no
target. Participants had to decide as quickly as possible whether
or not the target was present in each trial. They reliably detected
the presence of a snake target among ﬂowers more quickly than a
ﬂower target among snakes. The same pattern of results was
obtained for spiders versus mushrooms. Moreover, participants
who reported being afraid of snakes found snake targets even
faster than nonfearful individuals did.
The basic ﬁnding reported by O
¨hman et al. (2001)—more
rapid detection of snakes and spiders than of non-threat-rele-
vant stimuli—has been replicated by several other investigators
(e.g., Lipp, Derakshan, Waters, & Logies, 2004; Tipples, Young,
Address correspondence to Vanessa LoBue, University of Virginia,
PO Box 400400, Charlottesville, VA 22904, e-mail: vl8m@virginia.
284 Volume 19—Number 3Copyright r2008 Association for Psychological Science
Quinlan, Broks, & Ellis, 2002). However, some of the results of
these studies are inconsistent with the conclusions reached by
¨hman et al. In some cases, superior detection was also found for
non-threat-relevant animals (e.g., bears, dogs, and kittens; Tipples
et al., 2002). In addition, there are reports of superior detection of
modern threatening stimuli (e.g., syringes, guns, and knives;
Blanchette, 2006; Brosch & Sharma, 2005). Furthermore, in some
of these studies, results varied with the number of distractors,
contrary to the analysis offered by O
¨hman et al.
All of these visual search results and claims are based on adult
participants, who presumably have extensive knowledge about
snakes and various kinds and degrees of experience with them
(Rachman, 2002). However, if humans have an evolved ability to
detect threat-relevant stimuli exceptionally quickly, as proposed
¨hman et al., 2001; O
¨hman & Mineka, 2001), the
tendency might be observable in individuals with relatively little or
no experience with such stimuli. Thus, the primary goal of the
research reported here was to take a developmental approach to the
topic of threat detection, examining the visual detection of evolu-
tionarily relevant threat stimuli—snakes—by very young children.
A second goal was to expand the range of comparison stimuli
used to examine the detection of snakes. All of the previous re-
search compared detection of snakes with detection of one or two
nonthreat stimuli (typically ﬂowers or plants). In contrast, we
comparedthe detection of snakes with the detection of a variety of
other types of stimuli, including, most notably, other animals.
These comparisons provide particularly strong tests of the hy-
pothesized advantage for the detection of threat-relevant stimuli.
For all the experiments reported here, we presented both pre-
school children and adults with 3 3 matrices of color photo-
graphs of threat-relevant and threat-irrelevant stimuli. The
participants were asked to ﬁnd the one threat-relevant target
(snake) among eight threat-irrelevant distractors or the one
threat-irrelevant target among eight threat-relevant distractors.
Two changes to the standard visual search task were instituted to
make the procedure appropriate for young children. First, so that
we could obtain reliable reaction time data from 3- to 5-year-
olds, we presented the stimuli on a touch-screen monitor, asking
each participant to touch the target on the screen as quickly as
possible (see Fig. 1). Second, only target-present matrices were
presented, because the touch-screen procedure precluded the
inclusion of no-target matrices. We assumed that the latency to
touch a target would be affected by any differential respon-
siveness to evolutionarily relevant threat stimuli versus non-
The participants in the experiments were one hundred twenty 3-
to 5-year-old children and their 120 accompanying parents.
Equal numbers of boys and girls participated in each study; all
but 5 parents were female. The children and parents were re-
cruited from records of birth announcements in the local com-
munity and were predominantly Caucasian and middle-class.
Each child was randomly assigned to one of two target conditions
and one of two stimulus orders. For convenience, each parent
was assigned to the same condition as his or her child.
Prior to testing, the parents were asked whether the children
had ever seen a live snake and whether the children were afraid
of snakes. Parents also indicated whether they themselves were
afraid of snakes.
For each experiment, we selected 24 photographs for each stim-
ulus category. On a given trial, 9 of these photographs were
displayed in a 3 3 matrix. Each matrix contained 1 target
picture from one category and 8 distractor pictures from another
category. Across the experiments, the stimulus categories were
snakes, ﬂowers, frogs, and caterpillars. All the depicted animals
and ﬂowers were brightly colored. The snakes were all depicted
coiled on the ground or in trees (to maximize the size of the snake
images). None of the snakes or other animals were depicted in a
threatening pose. The photographs were scanned from nature
books and adjusted to an image size of 325 245 pixels. A coder
blind to the purpose of the research rated the brightness of
all pictures on a scale from 1 (very bright)to5(very dull). The
average ratings for the snakes, ﬂowers, frogs, and caterpillars
were 2.7, 2.7, 2.8, and 2.5, respectively.
A MultiSync LCD 2010X color touch-screen monitor was
used to present each picture matrix on a 61-cm (24-in.) screen.
The overall matrix size was 39.4 cm 39.4 cm, with 1.27 cm
between rows and 0.64 cm between columns. The individual
pictures measured 11.47 8.64 cm. Each of the 24 pictures in
the target category served as the target once, appearing in each
of the nine positions in the matrix two or three times. Each of the
24 pictures in the distractor category appeared multiple times;
the different distractors were presented approximately the same
Fig. 1. A preschool child identifying the single ﬂower target among eight
snake distractors by touching the ﬂower image on a touch-screen monitor.
Volume 19—Number 3 285
Vanessa LoBue and Judy S. DeLoache
number of times across trials. One stimulus order was created by
randomly arranging the matrices, and the second order was the
reverse of the ﬁrst. An outline of a child’s handprints was located
on the table immediately in front of the monitor.
The child was seated in front of the touch-screen monitor (ap-
proximately 40 cm from the base of the screen) and told to place his
or her hands on the handprints. This ensured that the child’s hands
were in the same place at the start of each trial, making it possible
to collect reliable latency data. The experimenter stood alongside
to monitor and instruct the child throughout the procedure.
First, a set of seven practice trials was given to teach the child
how to use the touch screen. On the ﬁrst two trials, a single
picture appeared on the screen, and the child was asked to touch
it. The ﬁrst picture was from the target category, and the second
from the distractor category. (All pictures used in the practice
trials were chosen randomly from the original sets of 24.) On the
next two trials, the display consisted of 1 target and 1 distractor
picture, and the child was asked to touch only the target picture.
On each of the ﬁnal three practice trials, a different 9-picture
matrix was displayed. The child was told that the task was to ﬁnd
the ‘‘X’’ (target) among ‘‘Ys’’ (distractors) as quickly as possible,
touch it on the screen, and then return his or her hands to the
handprints. All the children readily learned the procedure.
A series of 24 test trials followed. A different picture matrix
containing one target and eight distractors was presented on
each trial. Between trials, a large smiley face appeared on the
screen. The experimenter pressed the face when she judged that
the child was looking at it, causing the next matrix to appear. In
this way, we ensured that the child’s full attention was on the
screen before each matrix appeared. Latency was automatically
recorded from the onset of the matrix to when the child touched
one of the pictures on the screen.
After the child had completed all 24 trials, his or her parent
was tested in exactly the same manner. The parent had not been
told about the experimental hypothesis and had not been present
while the child was tested.
In each experiment, latency to touch the target was analyzed in a
2 (target stimulus: snake vs. comparison) 2 (age: children vs.
adults) 2 (child’s snake experience: child reported as having
some experience with snakes vs. child reported as having no
experience with snakes) analysis of variance (ANOVA). All
factors were between subjects. Preliminary analyses revealed no
effects of experimenter, gender, order of stimuli, trial, or parents’
or children’s snake fear (those reported to fear snakes vs. those
reported to have no fear) in any of the experiments, so these
variables were not included in the analyses. Following standard
procedures for visual search tasks, we included only trials in
which the correct target was selected. Participants rarely erred
(fewer than 2% of the trials in Experiment 1 and fewer than 5%
in Experiments 2 and 3), and errors did not vary by target.
In Experiment 1, 3- to 5-year-old children and adults were asked
to locate either a single snake target among eight ﬂower dis-
tractors or the lone ﬂower target among eight snakes. Given the
ﬁndings for these stimuli in a study with adults (O
¨hman et al.,
2001), we expected that the adults would detect snake targets
more quickly than ﬂower targets. The question of interest was
whether the young children would show the same pattern of
The participants were twenty-four 3-year-olds (M540.9
months, range 535.0–46.3 months), twenty-four 4-year-olds
(M553.2 months, range 548.6–59.6 months), and twenty-four
5-year-olds (M565.8 months, range 560.7–71.4 months) and
their 72 parents. Three additional 3-year-olds (1 for whom snakes
were targets and 2 for whom nonthreat stimuli were targets) were
excluded for failure to follow directions. According to parental
report, 55 of the children (81% of the 68 children whose parents
responded) had had some experience with snakes.
Results and Discussion
Because the pattern of responding was the same for children in all
three age groups, they were combined for the analyses. The
ANOVA on latency to touch the target yielded signiﬁcant main
effects of target stimulus, F(1, 140) 59.66, p<.01, p
and age, F(1, 140) 5109.04, p<.01, p
There was no
effect of the child’s experience with snakes, F(1, 140) 51.18, p5
5.66, and no interactions were reliable. Not surprisingly,
the adults generally located the targets signiﬁcantly faster than
the children did. As in prior research, adults were signiﬁcantly
faster to ﬁnd the snake among ﬂower distractors than to locate the
lone ﬂower among snakes. This result establishes that our touch-
screen procedure replicates the pattern of the latency data re-
ported for adults (Brosch & Sharma, 2005; O
¨hman et al., 2001).
Relatively few children were reported by their parents to fear snakes: 14, 1,
and 2 in Experiments 1, 2, and 3, respectively (21%, 4%, and 9% of the
children whose parents responded to this question). Slightly more parents re-
ported that they themselves were fearful of snakes: 30, 10, and 6 (44%, 10%,
and 27% of the parents who responded to this question).
ANOVAs in all experiments were repeated with stimuli as random effects. A
signiﬁcant Fwas obtained for the main effect of target in each experiment (e.g.,
in Experiment 1, snakes vs. nonsnakes), showing that the pattern of results
reported here holds for the population of stimuli from which the items were
The fact that the touch-screen procedure yielded the same pattern of results
for adults as was obtained in previous research indicates that our adult par-
ticipants—even those who reported snake fear—did not hesitate to touch
snakes on the screen.
286 Volume 19—Number 3
Attention to Fear-Relevant Stimuli
Of most importance, the pattern of performance of the young
children was the same as that of the adults: Like their parents,
the children located the snakes more rapidly than the ﬂowers
(see Fig. 2). This result constitutes the ﬁrst evidence of which we
are aware that young (preschool-age) children detect threat-
relevant stimuli more quickly than non-threat-relevant ones.
These developmental data are highly relevant to the claim that
humans have a special sensitivity to certain categories of evo-
lutionarily signiﬁcant threatening stimuli (Marks, 1987; O
& Mineka, 2001; Seligman, 1970).
Furthermore, these results suggest that experience with snakes
may not play a major role in human sensitivity to them. Compared
with the adults, the 3- to 5-year-old participants in this experi-
ment had relatively little exposure to representations of snakes or
to facts or cultural lore about snakes. In addition, the children’s
reported extent of exposure to live snakes was unrelated to how
quickly they located the snake and nonsnake targets.
In Experiment 1, both adults and young children detected
snakes more rapidly than ﬂowers. Thus, this experiment repli-
cates and extends the results previously reported by O
al. (2001). However, if humans are biased for the rapid detection
of evolutionarily relevant threat stimuli, that bias should be
apparent with a wide range of nonthreat comparison stimuli.
Flowers, the only nonthreat stimulus category used by O
al. (2001), differ from snakes on many dimensions, including the
highly salient perceptual feature of shape. In addition, snakes
are animate, but ﬂowers are not.
A much stronger test of a bias for the detection of threat-rel-
evant stimuli would pit snakes against other animals of similar
physical appearance. Accordingly, in Experiment 2, we com-
pared the detection of snakes versus frogs. Frogs were chosen for
their resemblance to snakes in texture, color, and animacy.
Because there were no differences among children of different
ages in Experiment 1, only 3-year-olds (the age group that had
the least experience with snakes) were tested in Experiment 2.
In Experiment 2, twenty-four 3-year-olds (M540.9 months,
range 536.3–46.7 months) were tested, along with their 24
parents. Two additional 3-year-olds (1 for whom snakes were
targets and 1 for whom frogs were targets) were excluded for
failure to follow directions. Fifteen of the children (63%) were
reported to have had experience with snakes.
Results and Discussion
In the ANOVA on latency to locate the target, there were sig-
niﬁcant main effects of target stimulus, F(1, 44) 57.27, p<.01,
5.95, and age, F(1, 44) 5102.58, p<.01, p
51.0. In both
conditions, adults were quicker to respond than children. There
was no effect of snake experience, F(1, 44) 50.17, p5.68, p
.37, and no interactions. Both the children and the adults de-
tected the snakes more quickly than the frogs (see Fig. 2).
The results of Experiment 2 are consistent with those of Ex-
periment 1 in that both children and adults detected the pres-
ence of threat-relevant stimuli more quickly than the presence
of nonthreat stimuli. Experiment 2 provides particularly strong
support for a detection bias for snakes, because no research of
which we are aware has employed such similar threat and
3- to 5-Year-
Adults 3-Year-Olds Adults 3-Year-Olds Adults
Experiment 1 Experiment 2 Experiment 3
Average Latency per Trial (in Seconds)
Fig. 2. Average latency to detect target stimuli (snakes vs. nonsnakes) among adult and child participants
in Experiments 1 through 3.
Volume 19—Number 3 287
Vanessa LoBue and Judy S. DeLoache
Experiment 3 was an even more stringent test of the existence of
a threat-detection bias, as we used caterpillars as the non-
threat-relevant stimulus category. Like our snake stimuli, our
caterpillar stimuli represented animate objects and were
brightly colored. Further, they shared one of the most salient
physical characteristics of snakes—their elongated shape.
Twenty-four 3-year-olds (M541.8 months, range 536.0–47.1
months) were tested, along with their 24 parents. Three addi-
tional 3-year-olds (1 for whom snakes were targets and 2 for
whom caterpillars were targets) were excluded for failure to
follow directions. Seventeen children (77% of the 22 children
whose parents responded) had experience with snakes.
Results and Discussion
The ANOVA revealed signiﬁcant main effects of target stimulus,
F(1, 44) 513.42, p<.01, p
5.96, and age, F(1, 44) 529.05,
51.0, as well as an age-by-target interaction, F(1,
44) 55.12, p<.05, p
5.91. There was no effect of snake
experience, F(1, 44) 50.16, p5.69, p
5.36. The general
pattern of performance was similar to that in Experiments 1 and
2: The adults generally responded more rapidly than the chil-
dren did, and both age groups detected the threat-relevant
snakes more rapidly than the physically similar but non-threat-
relevant caterpillars (see Fig. 2). The one departure from our
previous results was that the difference in latency for responding
to snakes versus nonthreat stimuli was signiﬁcant only for the
Experiment 3 provides further evidence that even young
children detect threat-relevant targets more quickly than threat-
irrelevant ones, even when there is a high degree of physical
similarity between the two kinds of targets. This result suggests
that the superior detection of snakes is based on their unique
constellation of features.
The results of the experiments reported here provide the ﬁrst
evidence of which we are aware for a bias in the detection of
evolutionarily relevant threat stimuli very early in life. The re-
sults of Experiments 1, 2, and 3 demonstrate that young chil-
dren, like adults, detect snakes more quickly than three
different kinds of threat-irrelevant stimuli (ﬂowers, frogs, and
caterpillars). There was remarkable similarity in the pattern of
responses of the preschool children and their parents. These
developmental ﬁndings are consistent with O
¨hman & Mineka, 2001) proposed fear module—a neural sys-
tem that is selectively sensitive to evolutionarily relevant threat
As a further check on the pattern of results in Experiments 1
through 3, we ran a control experiment in which we compared
detection of two categories of non-threat-relevant stimuli—frogs
versus ﬂowers. The claim of priority for processing threat-rele-
vant stimuli has no implications for the relative speed of de-
tecting different fear-irrelevant stimuli. Hence, there is no
theory-based reason to predict a bias for one category over the
other, even for stimuli of such distinctly different perceptual
appearance. The results revealed no difference for either chil-
dren or adults in the detection of a single frog among ﬂowers
versus a single ﬂower among frogs.
This predicted null result is informative in the context of the
tests of our theory-based predictions. Five of the six predictions
were supported by the participants’ behavior. In all three stud-
ies, the children detected the threat-relevant stimuli signiﬁ-
cantly faster than the nonthreat stimuli. The adults detected the
threat-relevant stimuli signiﬁcantly faster than the nonthreat
stimuli in two of the three studies, and the difference was in the
expected direction in the third. Thus, overall, both the adults
and the children responded quite differently to the threat-rele-
vant versus the non-threat-relevant stimuli. When there was no
theory-based reason to expect a difference in speed of detection,
however, none was found.
A particular strength of the experiments reported here is the
exceptionally stringent controls used in Experiments 2 and 3. In
most previous visual search studies, the threat and nonthreat
stimuli have differed on multiple dimensions (e.g., snakes vs.
ﬂowers, spiders vs. mushrooms, various animals vs. plants, guns
and knives vs. clocks and toasters). Our comparison of the de-
tection of threat-relevant and non-threat-relevant stimuli that
were extremely similar in multiple ways (e.g., snakes vs. frogs,
snakes vs. caterpillars) provides a particularly strong test for a
bias in the detection of evolutionarily relevant threat stimuli.
The results reported here are consistent with preliminary
results of a series of studies examining young children’s detec-
tion of a very different type of threat-relevant stimulus—angry
facial expressions. It is well established that adults detect
threatening facial expressions more quickly than nonthreaten-
ing ones (e.g., Hansen & Hansen, 1988; O
¨hman, Lundqvist, &
Esteves, 2001). Using the same procedure as in the research
reported here, we found that preschool children and their par-
ents detected angry and fearful facial expressions more quickly
than happy expressions (LoBue, 2007).
An important question raised by this research is, what is it
about snakes that attracts the visual attention of humans from the
ﬁrst years of life to adulthood? There are three physical attributes
of snakes that we consider good candidate characteristics.
One is slithering—snakes’ idiosyncratic movement pattern.
This attribute is not relevant to the present studies, in which
In addition, pilot studies revealed no differences in detecting a frog among
caterpillars versus a caterpillar among frogs, or in detecting a caterpillar among
ﬂowers versus a ﬂower among caterpillars.
288 Volume 19—Number 3
Attention to Fear-Relevant Stimuli
static images were used. However, in other research, we have
obtained evidence suggesting the importance of movement in
human infants’ response to snakes (DeLoache & LoBue, 2007).
Infants between 8 and 18 months of age were presented with
pairs of animal ﬁlms—one of a snake and the other of a different
kind of exotic animal—showing the animals moving slowly
across a screen. The infants oriented preferentially (more rap-
idly and more often) to the snakes.
Two other attributes that distinguish snakes from other ani-
mals are their elongated, limbless bodies and their consequent
ability to coil themselves. Both of these features were present in
the snake photographs used in the research presented here.
(Some of the caterpillar stimuli did not have limbs, but many of
them did.) It may very well have been these features that were
responsible for the more rapid detection of snakes that was
A question of substantial theoretical importance is the nature
of the mechanism that underlies humans’ rapid detection of
snakes. Do humans have an evolved tendency to rapidly detect
some or all of the physical features possessed by snakes, as
proposed by Seligman (1970), O
¨hman and Mineka (2001, 2003),
and other investigators? An even stronger version of this general
view was recently published by Isbell (2006). In her compre-
hensive analysis of the origin of the human visual system, she
argued that some of its basic properties evolved precisely be-
cause they facilitated the detection of snakes.
Alternatively, does the rapid response to snakes stem from
some more general properties of the human visual system?
Various asymmetries in visual search are well established; for
example, a curved target among rectilinear stimuli visually
‘‘pops out’’ more than a rectilinear target among curves
(Treisman & Gormican, 1988). Perhaps some very low-level
biases of this sort contribute to the rapid visual detection of
In conclusion, young children share the propensity of adults
for particularly rapid visual detection of snakes. The existence
of this tendency in such young children lends important support
to theories positing the existence in humans of an evolved bias
for the detection of evolutionarily relevant threat stimuli.
Specifying the precise stimulus attributes that underlie this bias
is a topic for further research.
Acknowledgments—We gratefully thank Themba Carr, Chris-
tina Danko, Joseph Romano, and Catherine Thrasher for valuable
assistance conducting this research; Dennis Profﬁtt for help with
equipment; and Evan Rappoport for programming.
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Volume 19—Number 3 289
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