September 13, 2011
Recently Sick React More To Sick Faces

People who have recently been ill react most strongly to disfigured faces.

Now a study in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science, offers intriguing new evidence of the connection moving in the other direction: from physiological to psychological immune reactions. "When people have been recently sick, and therefore recently activated their physiological immune systems, they are more likely to pay attention to and display avoidance of disfigured faces"—which they read, like a rash or a sneeze, as a sign of contagion, says University of Kentucky psychologist Saul Miller. Miller conducted the study with Jon K. Maner of Florida State University.

I am fascinated by the myriad factors below our conscious awareness which alter how the mind functions. If this result is correct then a recent bout of sickness will cause a mind to look more intently at faces that show signs of disease. So how else does, say, a cold or flu or bacterial infection alter how we perceive the world around us even once the immune system has beaten back the invading pathogens?

To put it another way: Just how many ways does human DNA program the development of the mind to alter cognition in response to illness, diet, and sensory inputs?

Two experiments showed that the recently ill more vigilantly pay attention to and avoid others who might make them sick. In the first, faces, some disfigured and some normal, were displayed on a screen. When they disappeared, either a circle or square appeared, and the person had to press a key, as quickly as possible, indicating which shape they saw. When the face appeared in a different portion of the screen, the participant had to shift her attention to it. A longer lag in switching meant more attention was paid to the face. After 80 trials, participants answered a questionnaire about whether they had been ill—"feeling a little under the weather," "had a cold or flu recently," for instance—and if so, when, from today to a year or more ago. Other questions measured feelings of vulnerability to disease and germs. The results: Independent of their conscious worries, those who had more recently been ill paid more attention to the disfigured faces than to the normal faces. Those who hadn't been ill showed no difference in reaction time.

In the second experiment participants had to push a joystick—a tested indication of avoidance—in response to a disfigured face and pull (showing approach) for normal face. Everyone was quicker to push away the disfigured one or pull the normal one. But those who'd been sick were even quicker than normal in avoiding the "sick" face, and the sicker they'd been, the faster they pushed. The not-ill people showed no difference.

A much larger scale study that compared people who had similar levels of illness might turn up super responders (react most severely to sick-looking faces) and very weak responders. Such a study could be used to look for genetic variants that influence our subconscious response to sick people.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 September 13 10:28 PM  Brain Innate

glenn said at September 15, 2011 5:47 PM:

You ought to try surviving cancer and dealing with friends and co workers who are diagnosed. You can tell when you see their faces who is going to make it and who isn't. I have a long time friend who isn't. He doesn't know it but I do.

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