Study finds that people who obsess about germs also worry about how they look

Germs and dirt generally have a nocebo effect — did you scratch a part of your body when you read that? Countless studies have shown that just thinking about germs gives us the heebie-jeebies, but a fascinating new analysis concludes that our perceptions of dirt affects our self-image. This is a novel idea that needs to be explained further.

The study, published in Psychological Science, contests that merely imagining the possibility of a contagion affects the “behavioral immune system” (BIS), which in turn affects our idea of self; specifically how we appear to others. Said simpler, when we think of being more prone to getting sick, we become more fixated on our physical appearance.

“When people are worried about pathogens they also evaluate their own physical appearance,” said psychological scientist Joshua M. Ackerman who led the study. “[This] motivates them to pursue behaviors and products intended to improve appearance, including exercise, makeup, and plastic surgery.”

The conclusion is intriguing because it highlights a rather strange connection we make between perception and reality. One would think that the potential for disease would prompt a person to be more diligent about their health — have them enroll in a gym class or something. However, what is influenced instead is our concern for social validation. Do I look sick? Do I look like I have a disease?

As explained by Ackerman, “This work is important because…it suggests that we might improve some of the negativity people have about their appearance by alleviating their concerns about infectious disease.”

How the study was conducted

One hundred and sixty participants were asked to read a scenario either about volunteering at a hospital (pathogen risk) or organizing a home workspace (control). The participants were then asked to complete a budgeting task in which they were told to allocate a certain amount of cash to improve various personal traits. This could be from anything like creativity to kindness to intelligence to physical appearance.

Ackerman and his team saw that participants who were part of the pathogen risk group were more concerned about their appearance; mostly all of them allocated more money towards improving how they looked. Subsequent studies showed that reading about a potential pathogen increased the participants’ insecurity about their appearance and they were more interested in appearance-related behaviors and products (such as plastic surgery and cosmetics).

Further research will be made to determine if interventions, such as hand washing, might disrupt the link between worrying about one’s physical appearance when there is a perceived pathogen risk.

Why appearances matter

Say what you will, but we are immediately judged by how we look. Social scientists have repeatedly stated that perceptions can influence how people interact with their peers. Certain over-generalizations can be made about a specific population, such as adults with baby faces being seen as having more childlike traits (e.g. naive, submissive, warm, and honest) and those with more mature faces being more likely charged with intentional crimes rather than being thought of as doing something out of negligence.

Similarly, we can apply this concept to the new study. It can be argued that we don’t want people to know when we’re sick — or if there is a higher chance of us being so. We focus our energies on appearing healthy, both to gain a romantic advantage and for societal validation.

You can read more articles related to social perception and other placebo-nocebo experiments at

Sources include:

comments powered by Disqus