Why Do We Fear This But Not That?

Who would win a fight between a lion and a snake?

I have not seen any odds in Vegas, but my money would be on the lion.

Oddly enough though, more people fear snakes than they do lions. The fear of snakes is so common that it has it’s own name, Ophidiophobia. But the fear of lions has no such distinction. It simply gets lumps in with the fear of all large cats, also known as Ailurophobia.

So why are snakes so scary, but lions are not? Both have sharp teeth, intimidating glares and can be deadly. If fear was dictated solely by what could hurt us more, lions would keep us up at night. What, then, causes snakes to be more frightening?

I think the answer is a mixture of presentation and peculiarity.

Presentation in the sense that snakes are slimy. They just look odd. Peculiarity in the way that they slither around in an unnatural, uncommon way. Their look and movement doesn’t make sense. We fear what doesn’t make sense.

The Bible even says that their slither defies comprehension.

There are three things that are hard for me to understand—really, four things that I don’t understand: an eagle flying in the sky, a snake moving on a rock, a ship moving across the ocean, and a man in love with a woman.” – Proverbs 30:18-19

Snakes are creepy and uncanny. Lions on the other hand are cuddly and common. They walk on four legs, have soft looking fur and look like something we want to hug, rather than run away from.

The Bible agrees.

And even he that is valiant, whose heart is as the heart of a lion, will utterly melt; for all Israel knoweth that thy father is a mighty man, and they that are with him are valiant men.” – 2 Samuel 17:10

So, fear has little to do with how deadly something may be. It has more to do with unknowability. Our fear is heightened by our sense of the unknown and unnatural. This is why we fear snakes but love lions. We recognize lions so comprehend them as valiant. We don’t understand snakes so we interpret them as frightening.

Fear is a crazy thing.

What to know more about fear? Check out the podcast Invisibilia and their a terrific episode on fear. They have an awesome looking at:

  • A striking case of a woman with no fear.
  • Whether it is possible to turn off fear
  • Why we should get rejected every day
  • A special fear formula

Check it out here.





Photo credit: Wikipedia