In a pandemic climate, public sneezing increases fears of unrelated risks

A friend of mine recently got onto a train and found a group of four seats that were empty except for one woman who was sitting face down. She looked asleep and he looked forward to a quiet journey. As soon as he sat down, the woman lifted her head to reveal streaming, puffy eyes and started sneezing profusely. This happened a few weeks after swine flu first began to dominate the headlines but being English, he was bound to the socially awkward choice of staying in his seat for the sake of avoiding social awkwardness.

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Many of us probably have similar stories. At a time when fears of a flu pandemic dominate the headlines, does an innocuous sneeze make people fear the worst? Perhaps, but a new study suggests that hearing someone else sneeze plays with our minds far beyond exaggerated worries about pandemics. They can make us more worried about completely unrelated threats like heart attacks, crime and accidents. They can even affect our political attitudes.

On May 7, 2009, when swine flu had spread to at least 24 countries, a group of researchers from the University of Michigan took it upon themselves to sneeze in front of passers-by on their campus. Led by Spike Lee (no, not that one), the team approached 26 people who had heard the sneeze and 24 controls who hadn’t, and asked them to complete a questionnaire for a class project.

Compared to the control group, those who had heard the sneeze felt that “average Americans” were more likely to contract a serious disease, citing risks of 41% compared to just 27%. More surprisingly, they also gave significantly higher estimates for the risk of dying from a heart attack by the age of 50 or of dying from crime or accidents. They even had slightly less faith in US healthcare, although this difference wasn’t statistically significant.

Later on in the month, when almost twice as many countries had been infected, Lee performed a similar experiment in a shopping mall. This time, the experimenter asked passers-by to take part in a one-minute survey. Twenty-four of the volunteers received the form without much ado. Another 23 were handed the form by an experimenter who pretended to cough and sneeze at the same time, while covering her mouth with her forearm.

The first question asked people if they would prefer the federal government to allocate $1.3 billion towards the production of flu vaccines or the creation of green jobs. Faced with a sneezing, coughing researcher, almost half (48%) of the volunteers chose to finance the vaccine. Without the symptoms, only 17% did.

Of course, it’s possible that being handed a form by a spluttering individual just put the volunteers in a negative and grumpy mindset. But Lee thinks not – a second question about the general direction of the country showed that both groups of volunteers were, on the whole, equally ambivalent about it.

Lee suggests that a minor, everyday event (like a sneeze) can heighten our worries about a whole range of unrelated hazards because it brings to mind a prominent threat (like a flu pandemic). Our emotions are affected by our ability to assess risks, regardless of what those risks are. In this way, the feelings elicited by one threat can feed into our evaluation of others, and sneezing in a pandemic climate can make people more worried about unrelated hazards from heart disease to crime.

Obviously, there’s more work to be done. Lee’s team haven’t actually demonstrated that sneezing in a pandemic era makes people more worried about that specific threat. It would also be interesting to see if the effect they found waxes and wanes over time, and how that related to the amount of concurrent media coverage .

Nonetheless, one thing is clear. Like many aspects of our minds, people are completely unaware of this effect. When asked later, the volunteers didn’t twig to the aims of the experiments. And while they assumed that a sneeze could make them overestimate the risk of flu, they didn’t think it would make them think differently about the odds of other threats.

Reference: Psychological Science, in press.

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