The Monkey and the Snake

Last week’s post detailed evidence that two marine species, lemon sharks and damselfish, can learn socially, and also demonstrated that social learning can be used both to obtain food and avoid predators. In this post, I’d like to expand more on the latter, since a series of interesting research has been done on predator avoidance (or, more accurately in this case, predator fear) in monkeys.

237px-Rhesus_Macaques_-_croppedIt all began with a study by Joslin, Fletcher, & Emlen (1964) that compared the fear responses of wild-reared and lab-reared rhesus macaque monkeys to snakes. Presumably the wild-reared monkeys would have had previous experience with snakes, but the lab-reared monkeys would not. They found that only the wild-reared monkeys had a fear response to the snakes, indicating that the fear of snakes in rhesus monkeys is learned, rather than innate.


Cook & Mineka (and colleagues) picked up and greatly extended this line of research in the 1980s. They were interested in seeing whether this fear could be socially learned, so they exposed wild-reared monkeys to snakes while lab-reared monkeys watched. (Don’t worry – the snakes were behind plexiglass!) The lab-reared monkeys initially didn’t have a fear response to snakes, but after observing the responses of wild-reared monkeys to snakes, they exhibited a fear response. The lab-reared monkeys had socially learned to be afraid of snakes.

Interestingly, the degree of the fear response of the lab-reared monkeys was correlated with the degree of the fear response of the wild-reared demonstrator monkey observed. The greater the fear response of the demonstrator monkey, the greater the fear response of the monkey that observed him.  This indicates just how powerful social learning can be, if even the degree of the response can be transmitted!

320px-Banded_water_snake_in_AlabamaCook & Mineka next wanted to investigate whether extensive neutral prior experiences with snakes could affect whether lab-reared monkeys learned the fear of snakes. In the “immunization” condition, lab-reared monkeys observed the non-fearful responses of other lab-reared monkeys to snakes. In the “latent inhibition” condition, lab-reared monkeys were exposed to snakes for a long period of time (again, the snakes were behind plexiglass). Then both groups observed the responses of fearful monkeys to snakes. The monkeys in the latent inhibition group showed a fear response when exposed to snakes again. The immunization group, however, generally did not show a fear response to snakes (only 2 out of the 8 monkeys in this condition showed a fear response). This showed that while monkeys can socially learn to fear snakes, their initial lack of fear can also be reinforced by the non-fearful responses of other monkeys.

So far, these results agree with what we’ve already learned about social learning. But here’s where things get interesting. As I’ve mentioned before, we often study animal cognition with a view to learning more about human cognition. Cook & Mineka were interested in connecting their work on fear in monkeys to fear in humans, and specifically the very specific, intense fears we call phobias. They noted that most phobias are of things that have existed for thousands of years (like heights and, yes, snakes). However, there aren’t any phobias of more recently invented dangers (like guns). This suggests that there may be a role of evolution in the development of phobias.

In this vein, Cook & Mineka wondered if fear of anything (whether dangerous or not) could be socially learned, or if, similar to phobias, the monkeys were evolutionally predisposed to fear only certain things.

284px-Macaque_India_4To investigate this, the researchers tried to teach monkeys to be afraid of flowers. This required a little movie magic: instead of having naïve monkeys observe the responses of actual fearful monkeys, they showed them a video of a monkey reacting fearfully to a stimulus. (The researchers first verified that watching the video was just as effective at socially teaching fear as watching the actual fearful monkey.) By using video, they could manipulate the demonstrator’s response so it looked like the monkey was responding fearfully to a flower (when, in reality, it was responding fearfully to a snake). The researcher showed one group of monkeys a video of a monkey responding fearfully to a flower but not to a snake, and showed the other group a video of a monkey responding fearfully to a snake but not a flower (importantly, the responses of the monkey in the videos were exactly the same – the only difference was what it was responding to).

They found that the monkeys in the latter group, which saw the monkey respond fearfully to the snake but not the flower, developed a fear of snakes (as we would expect). However, the other group, which saw the monkey respond fearfully to the flower but not the snake, did not develop a fear of flowers or snakes. This experiment was repeated using a toy crocodile in place of a snake and a stuffed rabbit in place of a flower, with the same results. These results indicate that monkeys are evolutionally predisposed to fear certain things, but not others. They further suggest that only those fears that monkeys are predisposed to can be learned socially.

Cook & Mineka suggest a couple mechanisms for how this predisposition could work. It could be that monkeys have evolved a predisposition to fear very specific things: they have the general concept of a snake somehow stored in their brains and passed down through genes that predisposes them to fear snakes specifically. On the other hand, they could just have an instinctual knowledge of the features that make things dangerous, like sharp teeth (remember the Halloween mask study?)

320px-Coast_Garter_SnakeInterestingly, there is actually a theory (called the Snake Detection Theory) that suggests that the complex visual systems of primates developed for the purpose of detecting snakes so as to avoid them. (It also suggests that pointing developed in order to allow us to warn others about snakes.)


Also, in a fascinating connection to neuroscience, researchers recently discovered neurons in the pulvinar area of the brain (involved in redirection of attention and motor responses to threats) that respond quicker and more strongly to images of snakes than images of monkeys or geometric shapes. What might this result suggest about the mechanism for a predisposition to fear snakes?

Sources Cited:

Cook, Michael, and Susan Mineka. “Observational conditioning of fear to fear-relevant versus fear-irrelevant stimuli in rhesus monkeys.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 98.4 (1989): 448.

Cook, Michael, and Susan Mineka. “Selective associations in the observational conditioning of fear in rhesus monkeys.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes 16.4 (1990): 372.

Cook, Michael, et al. “Observational conditioning of snake fear in unrelated rhesus monkeys.” Journal of abnormal psychology 94.4 (1985): 591

Isbell, Lynne A. The fruit, the tree, and the serpent: why we see so well. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Joslin, J., H. Fletcher, and J. Emlen. “A comparison of the responses to snakes of lab-and wild-reared rhesus monkeys.” Animal Behaviour 12.2 (1964): 348-352.

Mineka, Susan, et al. “Observational conditioning of snake fear in rhesus monkeys.” Journal of abnormal psychology 93.4 (1984): 355.

Mineka, Susan, Richard Keir, and Veda Price. “Fear of snakes in wild-and laboratory-reared rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta).” Animal Learning & Behavior 8.4 (1980): 653-663.

Mineka, Susan, and Michael Cook. “Immunization against the observational conditioning of snake fear in rhesus monkeys.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 95.4 (1986): 307.

Van Le, Quan, et al. “Pulvinar neurons reveal neurobiological evidence of past selection for rapid detection of snakes.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110.47 (2013): 19000-19005.


One thought on “The Monkey and the Snake

  1. Hello,

    Just wanted to say thank you for writing such an interesting and useful blog post! I came across it while I was searching for the Cook & Mineka study and now I understand it better. This really is helping me with my revision! Also, your blog is wonderful and it has many interesting facts.

    Best wishes,

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