As summer approaches, children will be spending less time in the classroom and more time navigating the outside world. Outdoor activities are a fun and exciting part of summertime, but they can also filled with natural (and unnatural) dangers, like fast-moving cars, steep cliffs, crashing waves and even the occasional bear.
Despite these daily hazards, most kids make it to the end of the day unscathed, other than the occasional scraped knee.
Research shows children have an ability to detect threat quickly. How are perceptions of what’s safe and what’s threatening in the outside world shaped from an early age?
Detecting natural threats
Because detecting threat would have been advantageous for human survival, researchers have theorized that humans have a predisposition to detect certain kinds of natural threats very quickly. These threats would consist of things like snakes and spiders, or animals that would have threatened the reproduction of our ancient human ancestors.
Consistent with this theory, psychologists have found that when presented with photographs of threatening images like snakes and spiders and nonthreatening images like flowers and mushrooms, adults are quicker to identify the threatening than the nonthreatening images.
In my own lab, we study how children and babies – who lack significant experience with snakes and spiders – respond to these creepy-crawlies.
In one study, we presented three-year-olds and adults with a series of nine pictures arranged in a 3-by-3 matrix on a touchscreen. One of the pictures was always the target, and the other eight were distractors.
We found similar results when we tested babies using a simplified version of the task: After presenting 9- to 12-month-olds with two images at once – one snake and one flower – we found that the babies turned their heads more quickly to look at snakes than at flowers.
This finding extends to animals as well. Research from a lab in Japan reported that even monkeys detect snakes more quickly than flowers.
Learning to detect threat
At first blush, it seems as though my research supports the idea that humans have an evolved predisposition to detect natural threats very quickly.
However, further research has shown that adults quickly detect a variety of unnatural threats as well, threats like guns, needles and knives.
Since these man-made threats weren’t around when humans were evolving, the evolutionary theory can’t explain why we detect these things so quickly as well. The fact that we do suggests that rapid threat detection of dangerous objects can be learned.
Several lines of research support this idea. My own work has shown that although preschool-aged children detect needles very quickly (more quickly than pens), they do not detect knives particularly quickly (when compared to spoons).
Importantly, these results seem to be related to negative experience with the objects: While the children had a great deal of experience with inoculations, they were not allowed to handle knives at home and had never been cut by one. Thus, children might have learned to detect needles (but not knives) very quickly via the negative experience of an injection.
Similarly, research with adults from another lab has shown that after being conditioned to associate the occurrence of an unpleasant electric shock with nonthreatening animals like dogs, birds or fish, the adults learned to detect these animals very quickly – just as quickly as they detected snakes and spiders.
Together, this research suggests that although learning might not be involved in the detection of snakes and spiders, humans can easily learn to detect a variety of threats very quickly as well – that is, after they learn that they are indeed threatening.
One final factor that leads us to detect threatening objects very quickly is emotion – either our emotional state, or our propensity to behave emotionally (as dictated by our personalities).
For example, in another study, I found that adults who watched a scary movie clip were faster to detect anything – even a very simple shape – faster than adults who watched a neutral clip.
Further, individuals who have a specific phobia detect the object of that phobia faster than nonphobic adults. Similarly, both adults and children with social anxiety detect social signals of threat (like an angry face) more quickly than their nonanxious counterparts.
Human threat detectors
This body of research demonstrates that humans can acquire a propensity to detect various kinds of threats through different mechanisms. An ability to detect natural threats like snakes and spiders is developed early. The detection of unnatural threats is learned through negative experience. Finally, we can detect any object (threatening or not) very quickly given a fearful or anxious state of mind.
Together, this flexibility in responding quickly to whatever happens to threaten us makes humans (even very young children) highly effective threat detectors.
This ability is important, as it gives us the freedom to explore potentially new and scary things, while at the same time alerting us when something in the environment might be worth keeping an eye on.