Adults and children alike seem to have an innate visual ability to detect snakes and spiders, according to research by two University psychologists. Professor Judy DeLoache—who happens to be terrified of snakes—and postdoctoral fellow Vanessa LoBue found that both young children and their parents could pick out images of snakes more quickly than they could a variety of non-threatening flora and fauna.

The two showed nine color photographs to the study participants and asked one group to pick out a single image of a snake when surrounded by such innocuous images as frogs, caterpillars and flowers. The other group had to find a nonthreatening image when surrounded by photos of snakes. Both preschool children, who are less likely to be afraid of natural threats than adults, and their parents picked out the snakes more quickly than the nonthreatening images, and their speed was not influenced by an existing fear of snakes.

DeLoache believes the heightened snake awareness stems from snakes having posed a significant threat to our ancestors; the tendency to respond quickly to snakes remains hardwired into our brains today. “We have an inborn predisposition to develop that fear,” she says.

LoBue conducted a similar study with spiders that found the same effect.

Their snake findings were published in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science.

The two are interested in cognitive development, particularly in how children process symbols.