Fear the sneeze

By Alexandra Watson • Published: March 25th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

If you have ever heard a neighbor sneeze and flinched involuntarily, regardless of whether they’ve covered their mouth, you’re not alone. And your unconscious response might be more extensive than you would ever imagine.

A new study from University of Michigan psychologists suggests that just hearing a simple sneeze can temporarily change your entire frame of mind.

To gauge the effect of sneezes on mindset, researchers first instructed an experimenter to stand in a crowded building and sneeze at passers-by. These subjects, along with a control group who didn’t see anybody sneeze, were then asked to fill out a survey that included questions about an average American’s chances of dying under various circumstances.

It turns out that sneezes don’t just make people wary about catching a cold… they also provoke unconscious fears about a range of health risks including dying early of heart attacks, in accidents, and under violent circumstances. A simple sneeze can apparently make you fear for your life.

Subjects also indicated a greater interest in improving American health care if they’d heard a sneeze. The control group displayed no elevated interest in the health-care system.

Shocked by these results, researchers performed a final bonus experiment: Roaming a mall, they interviewed random participants about federal budget priorities… including health care and green jobs… while apparently healthy or while sneezing.

Sure enough, those who talked to healthy interviewers expressed a balanced interest in priorities. As for those who talked to sneezers?

You guessed it… they suggested the budget be spent on flu vaccines.