A comparison of rural and urban Indian children's visual detection of threatening and nonthreatening animals


Address for correspondence: Richard G. Coss, Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616, USA; e-mail: rgcoss@ucdavis.edu


Recent studies indicate that young children preferentially attend to snakes, spiders, and lions compared with nondangerous species, but these results have yet to be replicated in populations that actually experience dangerous animals in nature. This multi-site study investigated the visual-detection biases of southern Indian children towards two potentially dangerous taxa, snakes and lions, that constituted major threats during human evolution. Three- to 8-year-old children from two distinct populations were presented with visual-search tasks containing one target image embedded in matrices of eight distractor images. Children living in Bangalore city, an urban setting in which exposure to dangerous animals would only occur occasionally during family outings to zoos and forest areas, were compared with children living in and around National Parks where exposure to dangerous species is frequent. In the first two experiments, children from both locations detected snake and lion images more rapidly than nonthreatening lizard and antelope images, respectively. Neither urban nor rural children displayed a bias for detecting horses versus cows, the latter constituting a familiar animal with strong religious significance. For all three experiments, the reaction times of urban and rural children were very similar, indicating that periodic exposure to dangerous animals early in life, coupled with adult cautioning, did not facilitate better snake and lion detection. This consistency of urban and rural children with different exposure to dangerous animals suggests that detection of some dangerous species may reflect both experience in nature and visual biases shaped by natural selection.