Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Preparedness and phobias: Specific evolved associations or a generalized expectancy bias?

Graham C. L. Daveya1

a1 Psychology Group, School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, United Kingdom Electronic mail:


Most phobias are focussed on a small number of fear-inducing stimuli (e.g., snakes, spiders). A review of the evidence supporting biological and cognitive explanations of this uneven distribution of phobias suggests that the readiness with which such stimuli become associated with aversive outcomes arises from biases in the processing of information about threatening stimuli rather than from phylogenetically based associative predispositions or “biological preparedness.” This cognitive bias, consisting of a heightened expectation of aversive outcomes following fear-relevant stimuli, generates and maintains robust learned associations between them. Some of the features of such stimuli which determine this expectancy bias are estimates of how dangerous they are, the semiotic similarity between them and their aversive outcomes, and the degree of prior fear they elicit. Ontogenetic and cultural factors influence these features of fear-relevant stimuli and are hence important in determining expectancy bias. The available evidence does not exclude the possibility that both expectancy biases and specific evolved predispositions coexist, but the former can explain a number of important findings that the latter cannot.