Sounds of sickness: Can people identify infectious disease using sounds of coughs and sneezes?


Cough, cough. Is that person sick, or do they just have a throat tickle? A growing body of research suggests pathogen threats shape key aspects of human sociality. However, less research has investigated specific processes involved in pathogen threat detection. Here, we examine whether perceivers can accurately detect pathogen threats using an understudied sensory modality—sound. Participants in four studies judged whether cough and sneeze sounds were produced by people infected with a communicable disease or not. We found no evidence that participants could accurately identify the origins of these sounds. Instead, the more disgusting they perceived a sound to be, the more likely they were to judge that it came from an infected person (regardless of whether it did). Thus, unlike research indicating perceivers can accurately diagnose infection using other sensory modalities (e.g., sight, smell), we find people overperceive pathogen threat in subjectively disgusting sounds.

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
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