30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute - Christian Jarrett 2011
Seligman’s prepared learning
Snake and spider phobias are much more common than morbid fears about traffic or electric sockets, despite the fact that cars and electricity kill many more people. Psychologist Martin Seligman’s prepared learning theory suggests that this is because we have developed a fear system that is ’prepared’ — sensitive to certain situations due to the effect of evolution. In the modern world, traffic and electrical accidents are major killers, but for the majority of the history of primates (our early ancestors), hazards such as snakes and spiders have been a far greater risk. According to the theory, individual primates who more easily learned to fear the biggest threats were those more likely to survive and pass on their genes — meaning, over time, that we have evolved a genetically based, fear-learning system that is tuned to certain dangers and not others. Seligman came up with his theory in 1970, but years of subsequent experiments have backed up the idea with evidence suggesting that this sensitivity can be detected even in monkeys and babies, so demonstrating its innateness. The theory has also evolved, with more recent versions suggesting that evolution has given us a specific ’fear module’ that works quickly, automatically and relies on dedicated brain circuits.
We’ve been shaped by evolution to fear those objects and situations — such as snakes and heights — that were a threat to our distant ancestors.
While the notion that some fears are more easily learned than others is generally accepted, the claim that this is purely a result of evolutionary processes has been more difficult to prove. As phobias do not typically appear until adolescence or adulthood, it’s possible we are more likely to fear certain things as much because of cultural beliefs, through observing how other people react and warnings given by parents, as through the effect of evolution.
MARTIN E.P. SELIGMAN
A healthy dose of arachnophobia may have saved your ancestors’ skin, allowing the trait to be passed onto you.