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Sneezes spread paranoia

During these days of swine flu fears, common sneezes and coughs are spreading more than just colds and the flu. They're spreading paranoia, according to new research.

University of Michigan psychologist Spike Lee and colleagues decided to test whether people's fears of sneezes and coughs spilled over into other areas. They asked volunteers to stand inside a busy building on campus and either sneeze and cough loudly as students passed by, or do nothing.

Other volunteers then surveyed 74 of the students, asking them to indicate their perceived risk that an "average American" would develop a serious disease, have a heart attack before age 50, or die from a crime or in an accident.

The students who had just seen a person sneeze or cough perceived a greater chance of falling ill, the researchers will report in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science. They also were more likely to be afraid of dying of a heart attack before age 50, or dying in an accident or as a result of a crime. And tended to have more negative views of the U.S. health care system.

The findings prompted the researchers to try another experiment in which an interviewer sneezed and coughed while conducting a survey of 47 people in shopping malls about federal budget priorities, such as whether the government should spend money on vaccine production or on environmentally friendly jobs.

The subjects were more likely to favor spending federal money on flu vaccines than on green jobs when the person interviewing them was sneezing and hacking, the researchers found.

By Rob Stein  |  November 4, 2009; 7:15 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , General Health , Health Policy , Influenza , Mental Health , Psychology , Vaccinations  
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