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Something Scary Is Out There: Remembrances of Where the Threat Was Located by Preschool Children and Adults with Nighttime Fear


Young children frequently report imaginary scary things in their bedrooms at night. This study examined the remembrances of 140 preschool children and 404 adults selecting either above, side, or below locations for a scary thing relative to their beds. The theoretical framework for this investigation posited that sexual-size dimorphism in Australopithecus afarensis, the presumed human ancestor in the Middle Pliocene, constrained sleeping site choice to mitigate predation. Smaller-bodied females nesting in trees would have anticipated predatory attacks from below, while male nesting on the ground would have anticipated attacks from their side. Such anticipation of nighttime attacks from below is present in many arboreal primates and might still persist as a cognitive relict in humans. In remembrances of nighttime fear, girls and women were predicted to select the below location and males the side location. Following interviews of children and adult questionnaires, multinomial log-linear analyses indicated statistically significant interactions (p < 0.001) of sex by location for the combined sample and each age class driven, in part, by larger frequencies of males selecting the side location and females selecting the below location. Data partitioning further revealed that males selected the side location at larger frequencies (p < 0.001) than the below location, whereas female selection of side and below locations did not differ significantly. While indicative of evolutionary persistence in cognitive appraisal of threat locations, the female hypothesis did not consider natural selection acting on assessment of nighttime terrestrial threats following the advent of early Homo in the Late Pliocene.

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