A new study finds that simply thinking about germs or infections causes us to start worrying about our physical appearance, particularly among chronic germ worriers.
The findings, appearing in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that the possibility of catching a germ triggers the so-called “behavioral immune system,” leading us to focus not only on our own vulnerability to disease but also how we appear to others.
“The behavioral immune system helps us search out signs of infection in others, even signs that are innocuous and don’t actually indicate infection, and often leads us to avoid those people,” said psychological scientist Dr. Joshua M. Ackerman of the University of Michigan, lead author on the new research.
“Our findings show that when people are worried about pathogens, they also evaluate their own physical appearance, which motivates them to pursue behaviors and products intended to improve appearance, including exercise, makeup and plastic surgery.”
This research is novel, say the researchers, because it highlights the relationship between disease threat and how we think about the self, as opposed to research focusing on how we think about others.
“This work is important because it demonstrates situations when people may engage in problematic health behaviors and spending, but also because it suggests that we might improve some of the negativity people have about their appearance by alleviating their concerns about infectious disease,” Ackerman said.
For the study, Ackerman and co-researchers Drs. Joshua M. Tybur (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and Chad R. Mortensen (Metropolitan State University of Denver) conducted a series of seven experiments investigating the link between infection threat and self-image.
In one experiment, 160 participants were asked to read a scenario either about volunteering at a hospital (pathogen threat) or a scenario about organizing a home workspace (control). After reading the scenarios, the participants completed a budgeting task, in which they were given fictitious money to spend as they wished to improve personal traits.
Participants had the option to spend the money to enhance a variety of traits including creativity, kindness, work ethic, intelligence, sense of humor and physical attractiveness.
The findings reveal that participants who were particularly stressed about germs showed more concern about their appearance and spent more money on improving their physical attractiveness if they had read the hospital scenario compared with those who read the workspace scenario.
Further experiments also showed that reading about a potential pathogen also increased germ-averse participants’ insecurity regarding their appearance and interest in appearance-related behaviors and products (e.g., plastic surgery, cosmetics).
“Perhaps the most surprising element in our findings was that infectious disease threat more consistently influenced evaluations of people’s own physical appearance than it influenced their evaluations of health,” says Ackerman.
“We might expect that worries about disease would have lead people to care strongly about their own well-being and take steps to improve it, but this was less common than changes in how people saw their own appearance.”
The researchers are currently conducting follow-up studies, investigating, for example, whether interventions such as hand washing might disrupt the link between pathogen threat and appearance concern.