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One line of research concerns transference of fears and values - how we learn from others by watching and listening to them. Earlier studies have shown that monkeys born in captivity, without any experience of snakes, can nonetheless develop a lifelong fear of snakes merely by observing another monkey exhibiting fear of a snake on a single occasion - a phenomenon known as one-shot learning.

Humans have the same mechanisms. An expression of fear in another person can be transferred and develop into a phobia. Here too, Olsson's research reveals a divide between individuals within a group and those belonging to another group.

In one experiment about fifty fair-skinned subjects were asked to watch actors - here called demonstrators - who were given unpleasant electric shocks when they saw a picture of a snake. The subjects found it easier to associate the picture of a snake with pain when the demonstrators were also fair-skinned.

And when the experiment shifted to learning that the snake picture was no longer coupled to an electric shock, the subjects found it easier to conquer their fear of snakes if the demonstrators expressing calm and reassurance belonged to their own ethnic group.

We don't know for sure why this is so, but one interpretation is that a sense of belonging and trust is decisive when we learn from others that something that was previously unpleasant is now harmless.

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