Seeing Sick People Can Make Your Immune System Stronger

Mere Visual Perception of Other People’s Disease Symptoms Facilitates a More Aggressive Immune Response

Mark Schaller, Gregory E. Miller, Will M. Gervais, Sarah Yager and Edith Chen

Abstract

An experiment (N = 28) tested the hypothesis that the mere visual perception of disease-connoting cues promotes a more aggressive immune response. Participants were exposed either to photographs depicting symptoms of infectious disease or to photographs depicting guns. After incubation with a model bacterial stimulus, participants’ white blood cells produced higher levels of the proinflammatory cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) in the infectious-disease condition, compared with the control (guns) condition. These results provide the first empirical evidence that visual perception of other people’s symptoms may cause the immune system to respond more aggressively to infection. Adaptive origins and functional implications are discussed.

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