The malicious serpent: Snakes as a prototypical stimulus for an evolved module of fear

Arne Öhman*, Susan Mineka

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

276 Scopus citations


As reptiles, snakes may have signified deadly threats in the environment of early mammals. We review findings suggesting that snakes remain special stimuli for humans, In tense snake fear is prevalent in both humans and other primates. Humans and monkeys learn snake fear more easily than fear of most other stimuli through direct or vicarious conditioning. Neither the elicitation nor the conditioning of snake fear in humans requires that snakes be consciously perceived; rather, both processes can occur with masked stimuli. Humans tend to perceive illusory correlations between snakes and aversive stimuli, and their attention is automatically captured by snakes in complex visual displays. Together, these and other findings delineate and evolved fear module in the brain. This module is selectively and automatically activated by one-threatening stimuli, is relatively encapsulated from cognition, and derives from specialized neural circuitry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5-9
Number of pages5
JournalCurrent Directions in Psychological Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2003


  • Evolution
  • Fear module
  • Snake fear

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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