Are we are born with certain fears including a fear of cats?

Fear of spiders
Photo (modified): Steve Jurvetson
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We are born with a fear of spiders. It is in our DNA. We inherit our fear of spiders and it is not learned. Although not everyone has this fear because they unlearn it or manage it. I refer to a study which came to this conclusion below, but before I do so I think it is fair to say that there is an argument that, for the same reason, a significant percentage of people fear cats (ailurophobia). Although, this fear has been removed largely because of domestication.

Humans evolved in Africa. Spiders in Africa presented a real threat to the survival of Africans. As a consequence it became necessary for people to be able to spot spiders very efficiently. It is said that a fear of spiders (arachnophobia), which is the most common phobia affecting around 4% of people is, in fact, a survival instinct and of benefit to the person rather than a weakness.

Venomous spiders with venom specifically designed for vertebrates have inhabited Africa for tens of millions of years.

Humans were always at a risk of encountering venomous spiders. Even when they weren’t fatal, bites were debilitating which would incapacitate the person for quite a long time which in turn would jeopardise the person’s survival.

A research study found that spiders were spotted by people “uniquely fast”, even when their shape was distorted. The detection rate and the speed of detection of spiders became significant in respect of natural selection and therefore the evolution of humans.

In a separate study it was found that even three-year-old children can spot spiders faster than other “random neutral objects”.

My opinion is that the same sort of process could exist with respect to the wild cats. Large wild cats would have presented a substantial threat to people in Africa and in fact they still do despite their massively decreased numbers.

The general opinion is that a fear of cats is learned, usually through a bad experience by a child. But I wonder whether there is more to it than that and that an underlying, inherited fear is one reason for some of the cat abuse that we commonly read about on the Internet.


The study was conducted by Joshua New and Tamsin German of Columbia University in New York.

6 thoughts on “Are we are born with certain fears including a fear of cats?”

  1. Then there are those people who are taught to not want ANY cats around by those that destroy everyone else’s lives, animals, and property by letting their vermin cats roam free. Some of them even have their own cats. They just despise the existence of any free-roaming cats from criminally-irresponsible and criminally-negligent pet-owners. So those cats must die since the owners won’t do anything about them, no matter how much you try to educate their feeble minds.

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  2. Science determined a long time ago that the only fears humans are born with are the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. All other fears, such as the fear of cats, are acquired.

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  3. Michael, i have accidentally reared a spider in my parents graveyard site at “Haines road cemetry”in Mumbai. Once during a visit to the graveyard i found a spider had built a web on the tombstone memorial and decided not to destroy the same.This graveyard has one of the best private natural gardens in the heart of Mumbai city besides being the loneliest location in the World’s third most populated City. This spider has been in the same place for a few months and just yesterday on Easter visited the gravesite and found the lone spider happy in its web . I have also photographed the same although the photograph is not clear due to the limitations of my “Point & Shoot” camera.Yes, spiders are fascinating and frightening as are graveyards and funeral pyres that remind us of death and our own human mortality.Similarly i feel cats hold a strange mystique over many people due to their aloof behaviour and hence some people are mortally afraid of cats let alone “Big Cats”. A photo of the “Spiders Web” is attatched, something that fascinated me.Its a small tiny spider.

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    • I enjoyed reading your comment. I agree with what you say. There is a hard-wired behaviour in us in respect of our relationship with certain aspects of nature and I have an idea that we are fearful cats. That is not a criticism of cats of course but of us or a simple observation of us.

      Perhaps we also fear the power of nature. Ancient people and even today people worship the gods but are worshipping nature and asking to be treated nicely. I believe there is a lot of hidden, sublimated fear in humans.

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  4. I wonder if fear of spiders is in our DNA, why only 4% of people have it. Shouldn’t that figure be higher? I’ve always found spiders fascinating to watch.

    When I first moved to Hawaii (Big Island) I spent a night in a “coffee shack”, and saw the biggest spiders (Cane spiders) and flying cockroaches (about 3″ long). The Cane spiders were about 3″ in diameter. And I asked “Do they bite?” and was told that they didn’t bite humans, but killed the roaches. So, that night I could feel the roaches and the spiders crawling over me in bed. It was creepy, but I wasn’t afraid of being bit.

    As for fear being the reason that people abuse kittens and cats, I don’t think so. Not everyone who is afraid would do the vicious acts that are done to kittens and cats. I think it’s done by deranged people who see their vulnerability, and feel powerful by maiming and killing cats, and other creatures, many times leading to abuse of humans.

    Infants and young children don’t seem to be fearful, unless it’s shown by their guardians.

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    • I think the 4% figure which is low but high by phobic standards is due to the fact that we have unlearnt our fear but it is sublimated or hidden in us and this DNA fear can subtly direct our behaviour or is a factor in our behaviour. So if a person wants to express anger they will choose to direct it at a vulnerable and feared creature – the cat. We kill what we fear. Hence abuse. That is just my theory.

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