60-Second Science

Sneezes Provoke Fears Beyond Illness

A study in the journal Psychological Science finds that people who hear someone nearby sneezing become more concerned in general, not just about catching a cold or flu. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

With H1N1 on the rise and flu shots hard to find, few things are as terrifying as [sneeze sound]. But now a report in the journal Psychological Science suggests that coughing and sneezing can spread more than viruses. They also spread fear, of germs and more.

So you’re on line for a movie when the guy behind you lets loose a big, juicy [sneeze sound]. Maybe you hold your breath, or maybe you decide to skip the flick and go home to scrub your hands like you’re Lady Macbeth. Well, psychologists got to wondering whether that well-grounded caution could snowball into an overarching skittishness about disease and other things.

So they stationed a colleague on a college campus and had her sneeze loudly as students walked by. They then asked those students to estimate the risk the average American runs of having a heart attack or getting killed in an accident. Sure enough, kids who’d heard sneezing were more doom-and-gloom than those who got away Scott tissue–free. They also found that folks who were coughed on were more likely to favor federal funding for flu vaccines than for the creation of green jobs. The findings, needless to say, are nothing to sneeze at.

—Karen Hopkin

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