Bennett-Levy and Marteau (1984)



  • Evolutionary psychology suggests certain fears are adaptive behaviours that helped our distant ancestors to survive. If we are extremely fearful of an animal and we try to get away from it, we are unlikely to be hurt by it. The fears that were imporatant to the survival of out ancestors may lie dormant in our brain. 
  • Seligman (1971) proposed the concept of biological preparedness - an inherited predisposition to fear certain classes of animals, such as snakes. 
  • The distribution of animal phobias is non-random, i.e. certain animals, such as spiders, are often the object of fears, whereas others, such as flies, are not. Fears of these animlas is not matched by traumatic experience, i.e. people may fear spiders despite there having been no actual contact to have triggered this fear. Fears often appear very early in life, reaching a peak at around the age of four years old. 
  • Mineka et al. (1980) found that wild-reared monkeys showed considerable fear of real, model and toy snakes whereas lab-reared monkeys showed only a mild response to the snakes. However, Bennett-Levy and Marteau noted that the lab monekys diddemonstrate a fear response when the 'snake' showed significant amount of movement.
  • Bennett- Levy and Marteau aimed to investigate the underlying mechanism- human beings are 'biologically prepared' to fear certain stimulus configurations in animals. 
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  • Two questionnaires were handed out to 113 participants who were attending a British health centre. The questionnaires were distributed in a random order
  • Group 1, which completed questionnaire 1, comprised 34 females and 30 males. The mean age of group 1 was 35.5 years. Group 2, which completed questionnaire 2, comprised 25 females and 24 males. The mean age of group 2 was 35.1. 
  • The questionnaires concerned 29 small harmless animals and insects. The reason for studying 'harmless' animals was because, it was argued, the same perceptual characterisitics that create fear in harmful animals should create fear in harmless animals even though they are of no biological significance to the survival of huamans. 
  • In the case of animals that might have been considered to be harmful (e.g. grass snakes or jellyfish) participants were asked to rate the mas harmless in order that harmfulness was not a factor in the ratings made. 
  • Questionnarie 1 this was degined to meaure self-reported fear and avoidance of the animals and insects. Participants rated the animals on two scales, Fear scale- participants were asked to rate their fear of the animal on a three point scale.
  • Nearness scale- participants rated their avoidance by completing a five-point scale or nearness.
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  • Table 1 showns the mean scores for all 29 animals on the six dimensions rate by groups 1&2, In table 1 rats were feared considerably more than any other animal. Informal questioning suggested that it was because there were perceived as potentially harmfully. 
  • In the rating of nearness, females were found to be less willing to approach or pick up 10 of the animals than male. These animals were (in descending order) jellyfish, cockroach, ant moth, crow,worm,beetle slug, mouse and spider. Similar differences were found in the fear ratings. However, there were no notable sex differneces in ratings of ugliness, sliminess, speediness and suddenness of movement. The men in group 1 rated themselves as less fearful than the women, but were nevertheless apparently just as responsive to the animal characterisitics. For exmaple, there was an extremely close correlation in the nearness ratings of the men and women (correlation coefficient (r) = +.96) 
  • Speediness and sudden movement share highly correlated (r=+.95) also the correlation between nearness and sudden movement +.05 but when the effect of ugliness is removed this rose to +.61. 
  • Animals have four perceptual characteristics (ugly, slimy, speedy or sudden-moving) are experienced as less pproachable and more fear-provoking than other animals. The findings of this study might be applied to help paitents dealing with their fear of key charactristics. 
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Alternative Evidence

  • Ohman (2000) noted that conditioned fear responses to stimuli as houses and flowers became extinct as soon as the unconditioned aversive shock (a mild shock) was no longer paired with these stimuli. A fear response still persisted, however, with stimuli such as snakes and spiders. 
  • McNally and Reiss (1982) found that certain associations with FR stimuli are less likely to be learned. The researchers sought to condition human participants ti associate FR stimuli (a picture of a snake) or the FI stimuli (a picture of a flower) with a safety signal (the absence of a shock). If conditioning was successful, the person, when viewing a picture, should experience a sense of relief because they have learned to associate the picture with no shock. The results provided marginal support for the notion of contapreparedness. 
  • Cook and Mineka (1990) conducted a series of studies where observer monekys watched videotapes of other monekys behaving feafully with either a toy snake or crocodile. The results was that the observer monekys later displayed a fearful response to these stimuli, whereas the same learning tended not to occur if observer monekys were shown identical videos but this time with artifical flowers of toy rabbits.
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