Instinctive Fears

It is easier to develop a phobia about snakes than electricity or carbon monoxide, probably because we have built in neurological mechanism that confer that propensity.

Likely most animals have a similar propensity to develop a fear of fire: or it might come automatically.   If there was such a fear-of-fire mechanism, we have lost it: and dogs have as well.  If this is correct, one could learn about this hypothetical mechanism by comparing dogs and wolves.

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73 Responses to Instinctive Fears

  1. ursiform says:

    Snakes (or spiders, or similar) are things that can be seen and trigger an innate reaction. Electricity and carbon monoxide, though real, need to be understood in a more detailed way to be recognized.

    Some people do have fears of GMOs, gluten, high fructose corn syrup, and so on. But it is a very different fear mechanism than happens with snakes.

    • teageegeepea says:

      If carbon monoxide was a big hazard back in the day, wouldn’t we be able to smell minute amounts of it?

    • Dale says:

      The conventional theory (at the moment) is that fears about things you eat are instantiations of an instinctive fear of impurity in the food you eat (with the specifics of purity being learned from the culture).

  2. Dipitty do says:

    Yeah, small children seem to have a compulsion to try to grab fire.

  3. random internet guy says:

    If dogs have lost an innate pyrophobia during domestication, it may have little to do with the process by which we lost our own, as we may have gotten over our fear of fire a good 30 million years ago, as described in this paper John Hawks linked to a while back:

    The paper suggests that primates in general may be pyrophilic, which has been documented for a few species (including chimps) and now, in this paper, vervet monkeys. Probably our nimble fingers and relatively sharp brains are useful in exploiting the post-burn landscape for food resources, but the paper doesn’t give any definitive answer to this.

  4. jb says:

    In The Old Way, a book about the Kalahari bushmen, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas notes that fire on an open savannah is not particularly threatening (because there isn’t much to burn, and it’s easily avoided),and she says that savannah animals don’t fear it. That would of course include us.

    • deleted says:

      Really? I’d have thought that a grass fire would be very dangerous for someone caught downwind of it. Bush fires in Australia are lethal.

      • jb says:

        Thomas seems to be talking from experience. For example she talks about the bushmen burning off the dry grass, to encourage the growth of green grass, and it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. But remember that Thomas’s experience is in the Kalahari, where vegetation of any kind is sparse, so her experience may not apply to grasslands in general (although she talks as though it does, as she is speculating about early human uses of fire).

    • little spoon says:

      Perhaps even when there is a fire, the greatest threat is still other predators. So freaking out over a fire and running from it might result in the animal bringing attention to itself and getting eaten.

  5. Patrick Boyle says:

    I have a fear of heights and a fear of tight places – but only in Italy.

    I discovered I had claustrophobia in Sienna. I tried to go into one of the towers. I popped out. I was surprised. I laughed. I tried it again. I just couldn’t go inside that ancient stone helical stairway. I wasn’t afraid. I – meaning the conscious me – was simply dumbfounded. Apparently my subconscious was adamant – I wasn’t going into that dark narrow space.

    I discovered that I was afraid of heights in a more conventional way. I had always been fearless of heights. When I painted house in the summer break as a college student I was the only one on the crew you would climb our rickety ladders. But I learned something else about myself in Pisa.

    The tower has no guard rails so if you go up it in the rain the marble floors, worn smooth by centuries of tourist feet, are damn slippery. And if that weren’t bad enough they aren’t even level!

    • athEIst says:

      When I was a kid, I loved spelunking. Laughed at the commercial caves with sidewalks and colored lights. Now the sight of a cave sends shivers down my spine when I think of the tight crevices I worked my way into (and frequently had to dig myself out of–backwards).

    • John Hostetler says:

      Patrick, over the course of your life, would you say you have a greater tendency to get lost or nearly lost than other males of your acquaintance? Because I have a theory about claustrophobia.

  6. MawBTS says:

    Do any animals practice what you could call firefighting techniques?

    In The Gods Must Be Crazy there’s a rhino that stamps out fires, apparently based on folk legends that they do this. And in the biography of inventor/filmmaker Arthur Jones (an interesting person, by the way), he recounts an incident when his crew darted an African elephant calf, which its mother then invaded their camp to rescue. One of the men fired a flare at the elephant, which set fire to the grass. The mother elephant stamped out the fire, and then rescued the calf.

    Click to access 26.PDF

    All of us that saw this were in a state of shock; one ranger, with tears running down his face, said . . . “Shit, if she wants it that bad let her have it; I wouldn’t stop her now even if I could.” And the rest of us felt exactly the same way.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Fear of heights is an odd one; our ancestors lived in trees.

    • j says:

      We fear falling off from height, our nightmares include falling. We feel dizzy near a precipice and will lose balance. There is nothing worse for a monkey than fall from the tree. Cats also go panicked when they look down.

      • dearieme says:

        But some people refuse to climb a ladder: it’s odd for us arboreal apes.

        • dearieme says:

          Silly me. We are descended from the apes who had a poor head for heights and therefore came down from the trees. That explains it.

          • John Hostetler says:


            “Son, son,” said dearieme, ever so many times, graciously waving her tail, “you must hunt the dizzy apes in the grass and the clear-headed ones in the trees.”

            You mean “can’t climb, but can run, walks upright, that’s the one?”

      • Jim says:

        Many years ago my sister’s cat had three kittens. They barely had their eyes open before they were climibing on the rafters in the garage. Some years later one of them was in the back yard when he suddenly rushed across the yard, climbed about 10-20 feet up a telephone pole and came down with a pigeon in his mouth. I remember once this cat fell out of a tree, landed on the grass on his feet and strolled off as if nothing had happened.

    • Patrick Boyle says:

      There is a classic psychological experiment called ‘The Visual Cliff’. They take a human baby and place him on the top level of a staircase. But the stair case is covered with a sheet of Plexiglas so the baby can’t really tumble down the stairs.

      Babies will not crawl out over the top step. They see the drop and recoil. They recognize the danger in falling. Your baby will try to not fall down your stairs. But babies are clumsy so you should still have some kind of barrier.

      This is like swimming babies. You can throw very young babies in the pool and they will sort of swim. But since they can’t manage to climb out you should avoid this practice.

      Fear of heights seems to be in-born.

  8. little spoon says:

    Phobia of heights, insects and snakes all seem common, but not fire. Quite the opposite – people seem fascinated with fire and they find it pleasant to be around.

    Perhaps naturally occurring fire is too rare for a phobia, so animals don’t develop fear of it. Many cats hate/fear water, and water is obviously very common. I am from FL and i have an extreme phobia of roaches, which are very common in FL. I used to see roaches almost daily there.

    Is there any place animals would encounter fire on a semi monthly basis at least?

    • gcochran9 says:

      As long as a fire is deadly (which usually only happens once per customer), selection could favor a tendency to fear it. or for that matter, built-in automatic fear. It wouldn’t have to happen every day, or every month.

      • little spoon says:

        I think aversion to food works that way. We need only one bad experience in our youth to want stay away from it forever.

        Theoretically animals could be prone to fear of fire because fire can easily be lethal but it seems this is not generally observed, according to people on this thread at least. Last week my hat fell on a candle on a restaurant table and it started burning. My reflexive reaction was to put it out. Seems a mother elephant had the same reaction. Perhaps that is the more common reaction of animals- to stamp it out if they see a flame and avoid if they see or smell a lot of smoke. I’m not an experienced camper, but I get the impression that if you leave your food out next to a campfire, all sorts of animals will come eat your stuff. They don’t care about the fire not to eat your smore.

        I wonder what penguins do when they see flames.

        • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

          I wonder what penguins do when they see flames.

          Given their insulation, they can probably stay warm 20 feet from flames.

          • Bruce says:

            Where birds are seen, bird lice must be presumed. Avram Davidson had a good riff on the legend of the Phoenix rising from flames and African birds who toasted their lice off in brushfires. When dinosaurs ruled the Earth, bugs had six foot wingspans, and the atmosphere was 30% O2, this can’t have been less common.

            If I was evolving an instinctive fear of CO2, I’d get it mixed up with claustrophobia.

      • RCB says:

        Sure, there would be a selection coefficient. But is it large enough to overpower the effect of drift? Large enough to override any negative pleiotropic effects that might come with an allele that leads us to avoid fire? I’m not convinced, but certainly it’s possible. (This is how I feel about a lot of ev psych hypotheses.)
        I find it’s helpful to ask: what kind of mechanisms would allow this? You might imagine an allele that up-regulates a stress response to, say, being exposed to bright lights in the dark. This might make you less likely to fall in a campfire or walk toward uncontrolled burns… but it might also make you more socially awkward during night-time story telling. So, pleiotropy.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Apparently nobody knows this anymore, but many animals do indeed fear fire, enough so that a fire gives significant protection in predator-rich places like Africa. Most of the world, back in the day. So you don’t need to wonder whether selection could create such an instinct – it already has.

          Wolves fear fire. Dogs don’t – they like to hang out around the campfire.

          • RCB says:

            Empirical evidence wins again.

            I wonder if wolves’ fear of fire (and other animals’) has been strengthened via its association with humans, either via selection or learning? I.e. take animals from >2 million years ago, before Homo became a mass-extinction-causing, world-conquering primate. Or, if it’s learned, take those who haven’t learned to associate fire with humans. Would they fear fire to the same extent? I may be overestimating the extent to which humans were responsible for other animals’ fire encounters. Must vary by climate. In any case, I admit that the “fire kills and therefore animals should be afraid of it” has a certain parsimony…

            • gcochran9 says:

              A lot of people don’t put much stock in that empirical evidence schtick, good for you. Fire certainly happened before humans showed up, but at least in some areas, humans succeeded in causing a lot more fires than had occurred before. This seems to have been the case in Australia. This might have intensified selection for fire fear, but it was surely around already.

            • gcochran9 says:

              I am reminded of the fact that many people in genetics apparently take Lewontin’s notion seriously – that most human genetic variation being within-group rather than between-group somehow means that human populations can’t have very different phenotypes – which would mean, for example, that Pygmies can’t really be a lot a shorter than other people. But they are… For that matter, although nutritional deficiencies really can have a lot of effect on height (not enough to make Pygmies average, but enough that the poor and the wealthy differed by five inches or so in merrie old England, circa 1820), I know that typical Mexicans in Albuquerque (part Spanish, more central American Indian) are in fact noticeable shorter than, say, contemporary northern Europeans, even though they have plenty to eat and are just as chubby as the rest of us. I would guess that the average geneticist doesn’t know any old-fashioned physical anthropology at all.

          • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

            And, as you say, it is an easy thing to focus on. Wire their brains up, bring them near fire, figure out the differences in brain activity, then look at the genetic differences.

  9. MawBTS says:

    Theoretically animals could be prone to fear of fire because fire can easily be lethal but it seems this is not generally observed

    Fire can reduce your fitness without killing you. I’m thinking of burns/injuries, as well as secondary things like loss of habitat. Even having to flee to a new, unfamiliar area is pretty dangerous if you’re made of meat and taste good.

    On the other hand…if the fire kills all your competition but spares you, it would be the best thing to happen to your fitness short of a Jocko the bull situation.

    Seems a mother elephant had the same reaction. Perhaps that is the more common reaction of animals- to stamp it out if they see a flame and avoid if they see or smell a lot of smoke.

    I don’t know – it seems wild animals generally fear fire. Which is not to say they won’t risk getting near a campfire if they’re really hungry.

    If Arthur Jones’ elephant story is true, it might have been an exceptional animal. Fire was sometimes used to scare war elephants in the ancient world – most memorably during the Siege of Megara. Pigs were doused in oil, set aflame, and set loose among the enemy’s elephants. The panicking elephants stampeded back through their own ranks.

    • Harold says:

      Being scared of fire and being pannicked by running, squealing, flaming pigs are two different things.

    • Anthony says:

      African and Indian elephants are different, and Indian ones may have been somewhat bred to not fear fire.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Indian elephants haven’t been bred at all – they’re tamed, not domesticated.

        • Garvan says:

          From the context of you reply to Anthony, I think you meant “selectively bred”.

          I don’t have any first hand knowledge, but I live in SE Asia and read the newspapers. Elephants are bred in captivity at non replacement levels in SE Asia and the “domestic” population is decreasing. AI solves the problems of controlling the bulls. But then they no longer have any work, except tourism, so I expect we will never see truly domestic elephants.


  10. Kate says:

    Have you looked at neonate reflexes much? googling for this link I see there’s a bit about The fear paralysis reflex,
    “also known as the withdrawal reflex, is developed 18 days after conception and is normally integrated at birth. If there is interference to the nervous system during pregnancy and/or birth this may result in the newborn retaining the fear paralysis reflex. Common presentations of children and adults who have retained this reflex include: being easily stressed, hypersensitive to noise and chemicals, allergies, difficulty learning to speak, withdrawal (quietly or noisily), altered sleep patterns (usually too little sleep), easily scared and shy, separation anxiety, panic disorders and being generally over-reactive to change.”

    I didn’t know that before….I just thought the neonate reflexes might be interesting to have a Cochran pov.

  11. dave chamberlin says:

    Fire, or rather our discovery of it, has a fascinating but unknown history. In another of my blatant attempts to promote good non fiction Richard Wrangham in “Catching Fire; How cooking made us human” pushes our control of fire waaay back to the arrival of homo erectus some 1.7 million years ago. There isn’t any real evidence to promote such an early use of fire but then again lack of evidence is not evidence of absence and this is especially true when it comes to our long lost ancestors. Carbon traces, which would be the evidence we would look for to prove when man artificially controlled fire, are meticulously removed by plant roots whenever they can reach them.

    Which leads to other fun to explore tangents best saved for a future thread. Were we really that smart 1.7 million years ago to control fire? Did our intelligence evolve that slowly so that a genius from a million years ago could attend junior college today? I dunno, I dunno.

  12. Sean says:

    A wild animal is going to have a different set of reactions to a lab one. Dogs’ fear of the dark i would be complicated by them being safe from wolves near a fire, while wild wolves stay away from a campfire. They would both learn that from watching their poors . See here.

    Gaze monitoring what someone wants just because they are looking at it. (Dogs can follow pointing cues better than chimps even though chimps can gaze monitor. Also “In one classic experiment on dogs’ use of human visual cues, food is hidden in one of several scent-proof containers. The animal is allowed to choose only one. Beforehand, the experimenter signals the correct choice by staring, nodding, or pointing at it. Chimpanzees, humans’ closest genetic relatives, have always done poorly at this test. Dogs solved the problem immediately”) .

    I think it’s hard wired that a hard look elicits disquiet. The coyotes than killed that girl in Canada were photographed looking right at people up close just minutes beforehand. Ditto the serial people eater grizzly in Yellowstone ( “In June, wildlife photographer James Yule came across the sow and her two cubs, one blond-headed and the other brown, while they were digging for gophers. He’s used to observing grizzlies in the wild—he’s taken reams of photographs of them—but this one spooked him. As he shot video footage from his Suburban, Yule noticed that the sow was looking right back at the camera. “She stared as she moved across the road and was looking back at me after she crossed,” he says. The experience was disturbing enough that he warned some nearby hikers to stay away from her”).

  13. Sean says:

    In a nutshell, faster social learning

  14. Richard Sharpe says:

    We’ve had what, four or five generations of wide-scale electricity use. Probably not enough to generate a phobia about electricity based on the death of those who ran foul of it …

    Fear of fire probably had several thousand generations to become established and then many hundreds to be removed …

    Now, if we routinely electrocuted people for criminal offenses … hmmm, might not work so well.

    • dearieme says:

      “if we routinely electrocuted people for criminal offences” Edison thought of that first, to put people in fear of AC current: or so it is alleged.

      • MawBTS says:

        Re: Afrotheria, search Youtube for “Topsy the elephant”. The largest animal we’ve ever killed with electricity that I know of – unless there were other elephants.

        I wonder if a display of A/C’s raw power was really in Edison’s best interests. It seems like McDonnell Douglas making an anti-Boeing ad. “Stay away from Boeing! Their planes go REALLY REALLY fast!”

        You just know there were people who left Topsy’s execution impressed all to hell by A/C.

        • dearieme says:

          The point of the story is that Edison was promoting DC, and so wanted to use a dirty trick against AC. Or so the yarn goes.

          • Ursiform says:

            Westinghouse was promoting AC because of transmission efficiency, Edison DC because of safety (and because it was the technology he was invested in, of course).

  15. serenedip says:

    a) There are neurons in the visual pathway that get activated by the sight of wriggly things like snakes, so yes there is an inbuilt mechanism for that fear.

    b) Fire probably does not need a similar pathway. The smoke and heat irritate the organism and make it move away, before lethal damage can occur. Unlike heights or snakes, where there are no warning signs before you get killed.

    • Sean says:

      The inbuilt fears are mainly of potentially dangerous animals like spiders or snakes (or blowflies if you are a horse). Fire is like predators in that fire can come at you at you but unlike a predator staying still (‘freezing’ with fear, or standing your ground) might be very dangerous with a fast moving fire. So wild animals like wolves should instinctively run away from a fire.

  16. Dale says:

    Of course, a bit instinctive fear is of people who are considered to be outsiders. Even today, that has a lot of important political and social ramifications.

    One of the less obvious ones is the consequences of the process of “creating larger ethnic groups”, the mechanism within nation-states to impose a concept of ethnic similarity on the grab-bag of people that it rules. Even today among long-lived nation-states the process is incomplete. As some Frenchman said, “First, I am Provincal; second, I am French; third, I might be European”. And as Nathan Nunn (“The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades”) worked out, the slave trade in Africa prevented the formation of large states which could create larger ethnic groups, leaving modern Africa cursed with “tribalism”, where any state of any viable size is a mosaic of groups that each consider all the others to be outsiders, reducing the level of cooperation inside any large-scale organization.

  17. Toddy Cat says:

    “And as Nathan Nunn (“The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades”) worked out, the slave trade in Africa prevented the formation of large states which could create larger ethnic groups”

    Well, possibly, but Nunn’s work is pretty controversial. It could also be argued that it was Africa’s vulnerability to outside predation, due to the lack of large, powerful states, that created the slave trade in the first place. Trying to separate cause and effect in history is a pretty daunting task.

  18. IC says:

    Personal anecdote: When fire is smaller than size of stove, no fear, actually engjoying it.
    When fire is more than my height, get worried. When fire size engulfing tree or house, it is horror for me and will run immediately.

    The fear based on quantity not quality.

    • IC says:

      I always wonder why many insects do not develop fear for fire. You often see them throwing themself into your oil lantern (self-immolation) during summer camping.

      • Count Doofus says:

        Because insects are too stupid to make difference between good and bad heat. It require a larger nerve mass than their.

        • IC says:

          Might be.
          However, the evasive behavior developed by fly toward to fly slapper can be handled by its tiny brain. Other explanation needed.

          • Count Doofus says:

            Probably insects aren’t evolved to manage little, controlled fires. A human invention.

          • IC says:

            My own explanation is life expectancy vs odd of events. Wildfire is not event happening every day (about once every 3-10 years for an area). Animals with long life expectancy of longer than 10 years will encounter of wildfire for sure. Developing fear of fire for such long life animals have evolutional edge.

            However, most insects species only have life expenctancy of few months. The chance of encounter a wildfire is almost none. There is no evolutional edge of pyrophobia for short-life insects. But most insects face daily predator attack including swooping action of fly slapper. Thus such fear is useful. For the same reason, human has less fear of region with earthquake and continue to buid their houses at earthquake prone areas.

      • Count Doofus says:

        and controlled fire is somthing that exist after human species to the top.

  19. melendwyr says:

    Supposedly it is very easy to condition monkeys to be afraid of spider- and snake-like pictures, but almost impossible to condition them to be anxious about flowers. It seems plausible that, as plants aren’t existential threats to monkeys, they’d have an inborn tendency to ignore them, no matter what stimuli they were paired with.

    The absence of fear is as notable as its presence, sometimes.

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      This is all very interesting an all, but PZ Myers?

      He’s not a scientist. He’s not even a scientists asshole!

  20. Ian says:

    A friend of mine was a fireman. He told me that very young children often hide in wardrobes or under beds during house fires and keep silent and still when their parents rush from room to room looking for them.

  21. Boris Bartlog says:

    In my experience neither cows nor pigs nor cats have what I would call a sensible fear or even respect for fire. All of these animals will walk right up to a blazing campfire to see what’s going on, up to the point where the heat starts to singe them. In the case of cows I could accept the idea that domestication has turned them all in to lumbering special needs mammals, but pigs are still observable quite intelligent and cats haven’t been bred for docile stupidity either. So if there is some instinctive fear of fire it seems that it might require something like a raging inferno or wall of smoke and flame to trigger it. Or it just may not exist.

  22. zdr01dz says:

    Every culture in the world has stories of a mythical, “Big Foot” creature that in reality doesn’t exist anywhere on Earth. Big Foot is the byproduct of a genetic memory, i.e. an instinct. Humans or a close ancestor were fearful of some type of “Big Foot” creature and developed a genetic mutation that stored this fear. Its the same reason that mice are instinctively fearful of cats.

    “Scientists at the University of Tokyo say they have used genetic engineering to successfully switch off a mouse’s instinct to cower at the smell or presence of cats—evidence that fear may be genetically hardwired and not learned through experience, as commonly believed.”

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