We are not very good at detecting sick people based on their sounds

We are not very good at detecting sick people based on their sounds
Posted at 4:18 PM, Jun 22, 2020

As more and more public spaces open back up, many people are finding themselves a little jumpy when they hear someone cough nearby. Are they sick, is it allergies, is it coronavirus?

Chances are, we are jumping to conclusions about those “sick” sounds we find disgusting, according to a recently published study from the University of Michigan and University of California, Irvine.

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

In other words, we humans are not very good at distinguishing the seriousness of a cough or sniffle by the sound of it. In fact, the study found that the more disgusting a person perceived the sound to be, the more likely they were to believe the sound came from an infected person, regardless of whether it did.

Previous research has indicated people can accurately diagnose infection in others using other senses, like sight and smell.

The research is based on four studies that had participants judge whether a cough or sneeze sound came from people infected with a communicable (easily spread) disease or not. On average, participants guessed four out of ten sounds correctly.

“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 said. “Despite this poor overall accuracy, perceivers consistently reported reasonable certainty in their judgments.”

The study’s authors theorized that people have a belief that a sound that disgusts them is likely to represent a disease threat - this could lead them to exhibit biases to avoid interactions with others who make disgusting but noninfectious noises, according to Mickalak.

The study’s co-authors are Oliver Sng, assistant professor of psychological science at UC-Irvine, and U-M graduate student Iris Wang and U-M associate professor of psychology Joshua Ackerman.

Read the full study here.