Thinking about germs may influence personal appearance perceptions
Do you fear germs? Do you spend time worrying about potential infections? If the answer is yes, you wouldn’t be alone. Many people hold these fears.
But a new line of research appearing in Psychological Science suggests that some people who have chronic germ fears may trigger worries about how they appear to others.
This is important to know because previous research on gay men has revealed many in our community struggle with body image issues.
“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,” says psychological scientist 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.”
Ackerman goes on to explain:
“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 and study co-investigator Joshua M. Tybur (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and Chad R. Mortensen (Metropolitan State University of Denver) conducted a series of seven studies exploring the relationship between infection threat and self-image.
In one experiment, the investigators randomly assigned 160 subjects to read a scenario about volunteering at a hospital – a pathogen threat – or a scenario about organizing their home workspace (control group).
After reading the scenarios, the participants attended to a budgeting task. They were given fake money to spend as they wished to improve personal traits.
These traits included: creativity, kindness, work ethic, intelligence, sense of humor, and physical attractiveness.
The results indicated participants who read the hospital scenario were more worried about their personal appearance as compared to those who read the workspace scenario.
Other experiments revealed that simply reading material about a pathogen also boosted germ-averse participants' concerns about their appearance – and interest appearance enhancing products or surgeries.
“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.”
Ackerman and colleagues are now conducting follow-up studies, exploring, for example, whether certain interventions (hand washing) might break the link between germ worries and appearance concerns.
Source: Psychological Science