Study: Coughs, Sneezes That Sound Disgusting Fill Bystanders With Fear

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — These days, everyone is hyper aware of every cough, sneeze, and sniffle. It’s dangerous business doing any of that stuff in public right now, as most people will probably assume you’ve become a walking COVID-19 infection center. Interestingly, a new study from the University of Michigan finds that people are actually quite inaccurate when it comes to picking up on legitimate illnesses based on sounds.

Even before COVID-19, researchers say that people have always been inclined to assume someone else is really sick after hearing a simple cough or sneeze. In reality, however, many of these perceived warning signs of illness are nothing more than a tickle of the throat or occasional sneeze.

The more “disgusting” we perceive a sound to be, the more likely we are to attribute that sound to an infection or illness.

“We find no evidence that perceivers can reliably detect pathogen threats from cough and sneeze sounds, even though they are reasonably certain they can,” says Nicholas Michalak, the study’s lead author and a psychology graduate student, in a release.

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Previous research had found that people are pretty good at picking up on illnesses via sight or smell. But, according to this study, when it comes to sounds, most of us “over-perceive” the presence of a pathogen or infection.

Cough or coronavirus?

To come to their conclusions, the study’s authors held four experiments. In each scenario, participants were asked to determine whether or not a series of coughs and sneeze sounds were made by people dealing with an infectious disease or not. All four experiments yielded absolutely no evidence that people are capable of making this distinction based on sounds alone.

The average participant only guessed correctly four times out of 10 times.

“Moreover, there was no evidence that accuracy improved when participants knew the true number of infectious sounds in advance or when participants focused on how clear or disgusting they perceived the sounds,” Michalak adds. “Despite this poor overall accuracy, perceivers consistently reported reasonable certainty in their judgments.”

It certainly makes sense that people naturally associate sounds they perceive to be disgusting with illness, but the research team conclude that no one should jump to any diagnoses based on a cough or sneeze alone.

The study is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

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