We avoid people who look sick—even if they are not.
The common cold results in more than a sore throat and a runny nose; new research shows that illness can actually change our personal prejudices. When we are sick, we become more aware of and repelled by people who seem unhealthy, whether or not those people are actually contagious.
Researchers at the University of Kentucky and Florida State University found that study participants who had just been ill paid more attention to pictures of disfigured faces than did healthy subjects. Those with recent illnesses were also quicker to push the images of disfigured faces away than they were to pull the images toward them. The results are consistent with other studies showing that prejudice toward people who are obese, elderly, or disabled is higher among those who have recently been sick.
Scientists speculate that once the immune system has been kicked into gear, it triggers cognitive processes that set off mental warning bells when we see someone who looks ill. Our brains, however, may be unable to discern who is actually a threat. "Our minds evolved to solve problems associated with survival," says study author Saul Miller. But the system trips up "when we start assuming that anyone who has any health issues is contagious." —Sarah Korones