A new study published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that merely thinking about germs can make some people excessively concerned with how they look.

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The threat of an infectious disease can make us suspicious of others’, and our own, physical appearance, suggests a new study.

When confronted with the threat of an infectious disease, people often develop “psychological and behavioral defense mechanisms.”

These reactions are all a part of our “behavioral immune system” (BIS), explain the authors of the new research, which prompts us to avoid certain people and potential pathogen carriers.

But our behavioral immune response is not just directed at the outside world. In their recently published paper, Joshua M. Ackerman, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and his colleagues hypothesized that an effective BIS should alert people not only to external threats such as germs, but also to vulnerabilities of the self.

So, the researchers set out to examine the effect of being concerned with germs on self-image. “By examining self-directed evaluations and decisions,” write the authors, “this research expands our understanding of how infectious disease impacts our psychology and highlights a consequence with relevance for stigmatization and mental health.”

To explore the psychological aspects of germ aversion, Ackerman and colleagues designed seven experiments with hundreds of participants.

In the first experiment, 160 participants (83 of whom were male) were asked to read one of two stories designed to manipulate how they felt about germs.

One story was a control scenario about workspace organization, while the second one was about volunteering to work in a gerontology ward at a hospital. The participants’ emotional states were assessed after both scenarios.

In the second stage of the experiment, participants were asked to spend a fictitious budget on “design[ing] your ideal self, that is, who you want to be today.”

Subjects were also told that they could spend the money on 11 traits, only one of which was related to physical appearance. These 11 traits were “physical attractiveness, creativity, kindness, work ethic, intelligence, romantic ability, sense of humor, virtuousness, social status, nonwork talents/skills, and yearly income.”

The researchers also evaluated the participants’ aversion to germs, as well as asking them to report on how concerned they were about four aspects linked to germ threats: physical appearance, hygiene, fitness, and “what other people think of you.”

It was found that participants who were particularly germ-averse and were confronted with the hospital scenario chose to spend significantly more money to improve their appearance, and they reported feeling more worried about their looks than the control group.

Further experiments revealed that these participants were specifically interested in behavior and products related to physical appearance, such as cosmetic surgery, rather than being concerned about health or fitness.

“Our findings show that when people are worried about pathogens,” explains Ackerman, “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.”

“Perhaps the most surprising element in our findings,” he adds, “was that infectious disease threat more consistently influenced evaluations of people’s own physical appearance than it influenced their evaluations of health.”

“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.”

How physical appearance influences mating opportunities may explain these results, speculate the researchers, but further work is needed to ascertain this.

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.”

Joshua M. Ackerman