A new study finds that simply looking at sick people may help you to stay healthy. The research showed that seeing symptoms of illness, such as coughing or sneezing, triggers a response from the immune system.
Mark Schaller, lead study author and psychologist at the University of British Columbia, had one group of people watch a ten minute slide show of people suffering from various illnesses, including images of rashes, coughing and sneezing. The other group watched a slideshow of people waving and pointing guns. The participants that viewed the gun slideshow reported more distress than those who viewed the images of ill people.
The participants had blood samples taken before and after the slideshows. The samples were then exposed to infection and analyzed for the immune substance interleukin-6 (IL-6), which is produced by white blood cells to fight off potential infections. Discovery reports that while people who viewed the gun slideshow had white blood cells that increased IL-6 production by 6 percent, the production of IL-6 in participants who saw the images of sick people increased by 23 percent.
The research team doesn’t know exactly why this occurs; however, the higher ratings of distress from the gun slideshow participants and their lower levels of IL-6 indicate that stress is not a factor. Schaller does hypothesize it could be some some sort of survival mechanism, telling Psychology Today:
“If you see a bunch of people around you who look sick, that’s a pretty good indicator that you’re in imminent danger of infection. Which means that this is one of those times when it’d be wise to allocate more of those precious bodily resources to mount an especially vigorous immunological defense.”
This study is published in Psychological Science.