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Science & Environment

Researchers Discover People Are Not So Good At Detecting Sick People By Their Coughs

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you heard this sound...

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

KELLY: ...Would you back away, assuming the person was sick? Well, what about this one?

(SOUNDBITE OF SNEEZING)

KELLY: Sick or healthy? Well, if you thought those sounds came from sick people, you would be wrong.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

But if you heard this...

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

SHAPIRO: ...Or this...

(SOUNDBITE OF SNEEZING)

SHAPIRO: You would be right to back away. Those are the coughs and sneezes of people infected with a cold or flu. Psychologists at the University of Michigan put more than 600 volunteers through a similar listening test.

JOSHUA ACKERMAN: We were interested in whether or not people can accurately tell whether somebody else is sick with an infectious disease simply based on the various sounds they produce.

KELLY: Joshua Ackerman, one of the researchers - he says the study was trying to determine if our hearing is as sharp on the matter as our other senses.

ACKERMAN: There's some evidence that people can detect whether somebody is sick based on how they look and based on how they smell. So we thought it would might stand to reason that we could do this by sound as well.

KELLY: So the Michigan researchers set out to determine if that was true by asking volunteers to judge dozens of coughs and sneezes.

SHAPIRO: They gathered the sick sounds from videos of patients who'd been medically diagnosed. And the uninfected sounds...

ACKERMAN: Were taken from video clips of people who were doing things like plucking their nose hair or inhaling spices like cinnamon or just suffering from allergies.

SHAPIRO: Then they asked the question, could volunteers tell the sounds apart?

ACKERMAN: We found that people were no better than chance at identifying. So, essentially, people were not good at all.

KELLY: Yet, despite being no better than chance, people generally thought they were correct in their judgments. The findings appear in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

SHAPIRO: As for why people failed the test so miserably, Ackerman says there was one clear factor steering them astray.

ACKERMAN: People were more likely to say that it's coming from an infected person if they thought that that sound was disgusting.

KELLY: In other words, we may not know sick from well. But we do know what grosses us out. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.