Self-Efficacy, Animal Phobias and Evolutionary Mismatch
The judgment one has about his/her own competence to cope with certain feared animals is believed to have been an adaptive psychological mechanism that has assisted humans in their attempts to avoid serious harm (and therefore enhancing their survival chances) throughout evolutionary history. Nevertheless, such an evolved psychological mechanism is conceivably less relevant in the modern, largely urbanized and medically progressive environment whereby the risk of being severely injured by the dreaded creatures is relatively more modest.
Self-efficacy, the perception of one’s proficiency in accomplishing tasks that are related to the achievement of a specific goal (Bandura 1977), is a concept that has garnered considerable empirical endorsement and has been successfully utilized in elucidating an extensive range of phenomena over the years (Pajares 1997). One of the most intriguing of these applications pertained to the topic of phobias (e.g., the extreme distress associated with encountering some dreaded situations/objects) in humans (Bandura 1977). A phobia, or more specifically an animal phobia in this case, was contended to develop when one has appraised that he/she would not have the competence to ensure his/her own well-being in the presence of the specific animal (Williams 1992). For instance, if an individual has reached the conclusion that he/she would not have the agility to dodge an attack by a nearby snake or the strength to prevent being grievously harmed by it, then he/she is likely to be immensely afraid of it.
Self-Efficacy: An Adaptive Mechanism Against Animal Threats
Taking into account the apparent ubiquitousness of both self-efficacy and the extreme apprehension toward certain creatures around the world (Davey et al. 1998; Scholz et al. 2002), it is logical to assume that self-efficacy must have evolved in humans as a psychological mechanism which has provided useful information for an individual about his/her own capability to deal successfully with any possible threat (e.g., any likely danger that might have been posed by a particular animal in this case) and how to react accordingly across prehistory. On occasions (or even possibly quite regularly), although such a mechanism (when utilized specifically in the domain of animal threats) might result in undue fears and unnecessary avoidance (e.g., when an animal is actually harmless), the price that one might pay (e.g., death) for making a careless mistake (e.g., being self-assured, and therefore calm, about one’s competence to handle a venomous snake) is so high that it would have been adaptive for humans to develop more generalized phobias about certain creatures (e.g., an excessive fear toward all snakes just to be safe) (Nesse 1994). Indeed, empirical data to date have broadly supported the suggested role of self-efficacy in the manifestation of zoophobia symptoms (e.g., Johnstone and Page 2004), and the notion that such apprehensive reactions were typically excessive (e.g., Jones and Menzies 2000).
Evolved Self-Efficacy and Zoophobias in the Modern World
The utility of self-efficacy as an evolved psychological mechanism in coping specifically with animal threats has largely dwindled in the present world however, as a result of massive societal/technological and medical transformations in the recent era. For instance, a huge proportion of the human race is presently located in urban settings (as opposed to more natural surroundings), which are environments whereby encounters with potentially dangerous animals are considerably much more uncommon (United Nations 2014). In addition, significant advances in medical research and treatment have likewise greatly reduced the lethality of an attack by any feared animal (e.g., Dart et al. 2001). In fact, humans are much more likely to die under modern technology-related circumstances (e.g., in a vehicular accident) as compared to an attack by a feared creature in the current world, although most are still likely to be more apprehensive of the latter due to the vast amount of time psychological mechanisms (e.g., animal coping self-efficacy) would generally require to adapt to evolutionarily novel objects/conditions (Nesse 1994).
Self-efficacy is interpreted to be an evolved psychological adaptation that has played a pivotal role in influencing relevant coping reactions (e.g., be extremely fearful or remain relatively calm) toward a diverse array of potential threats (e.g., animals) across prehistory by virtue of a pertinent assessment about one’s survival risk (if threatened by a particular creature) in relation to his/her own capability. Such an adaptation, specifically in the context of zoophobias, might nonetheless be considered excessive in the current environment given the radical introduction of evolutionarily-novel technologies and medical treatments in the modern, predominantly urbanized world.
- Dart, R. C., Seifert, S. A., Boyer, L. V., Clark, R. F., Hall, E., McKinney, P., … & Ward, S. B. (2001). A randomized multicenter trial of crotalinae polyvalent immune Fab (ovine) antivenom for the treatment for crotaline snakebite in the United States. Archives of Internal Medicine, 161, 2030–2036.Google Scholar
- Davey, G. C., McDonald, A. S., Hirisave, U., Prabhu, G. G., Iwawaki, S., Im Jim, C., … & Reimann, B. C. (1998). A cross-cultural study of animal fears. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 36, 735–750.Google Scholar
- Pajares, F. (1997). Current directions in self-efficacy research. In M. Maehr & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement (Vol. 10, pp. 1–49). Greenwich: JAI Press.Google Scholar
- United Nations. (2014). World urbanization prospects: The 2014 revision, highlights. Retrieved from https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/publications/files/wup2014-highlights.Pdf.
- Williams, S. L. (1992). Perceived self-efficacy and phobic disability. In R. Schwarzer (Ed.), Self-efficacy: Thought control of action (pp. 149–176). Washington, DC: Hemisphere.Google Scholar