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These days, a sneeze is not just a sneeze

November 3, 2009 |  6:00 am

Sneeze If "achoo!" makes you jumpy these days, you're not alone. The swine flu pandemic has made people much more reactive when they hear or see someone sneeze, according to a new study. It found that public sneezing heightens people's fears about germs and even other, totally unrelated, health hazards.

Psychology researchers at the University of Michigan stationed an experimenter in a busy campus building and instructed her to sneeze loudly as students passed by. Researchers then gave a survey to some of the students that asked them to describe their perceptions of an average American contracting a serious disease, having a heart attack before age 50, or dying from a crime or accident. The students who had just witnessed someone sneezing perceived a greater chance of falling ill, suggesting that the sneeze triggered a broad fear of all health threats, not just ones linked to airborne germs.

The study also showed that people within hearing distance of a sneeze had more negative views of the nation's healthcare system.

When the study scenario was repeated at a mall, survey participants exposed to the sneeze were more likely to favor federal spending of $1.3 billion on flu vaccine rather than spending the money on the creation of green jobs.

In times of a flu pandemic, "public sneezing has the power to shift policy," said the lead author of the study, Dr. Norbert Schwarz, in a news release.


The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Assn. for Psychological Science.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: British Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson demonstrates how to sneeze during a visit to Tyssen Community School, in north London, to help combat the swine flu. Photo credit: Shaun Curry  /  AFP  /  Getty Images