Avoiding germs in our daily lives could provide a false sense of security when real threats arise

ANN ARBOR – The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare how widely human reactions vary over the threat of germs. Where we fall on the spectrum of “germ aversion” impacts how we react to slobbery kisses or stains on a drinking cup, and this anxiety can be shaped by both evolution and culture. A new study has found that these reactions, or the effects of germ aversion, may also critically depend on the presence or absence of an actual germ threat. 

Findings recently reported in “The Germ Aversion Paradox: When Germ Aversion Predicts Reduced Alpha Power Suppression to Norm Violations,” illustrate that individuals who are generally more concerned about germs tend to become complacent when confronted with a genuine threat. 

“This complacency is rooted in their confidence resulting from successfully avoiding germ threats in the past,” said University of Michigan psychology professor Shinobu Kitayama who authored the study with Michigan’s Joshua Ackerman and Cristina Salvador of Duke University.  “This can unfortunately lead to underestimating the severity of a new threat, and consequently, a reduction in the precautions taken.”

The research team had previously investigated another source of complacency in the face of COVID-19 risk: a sense of belonging. Perceived belonging can arrive in social settings, as in the case of large gatherings of like-minded individuals that turned out to be early-pandemic spreader events.  Such events may have presented attendees with a perceived protection that inadvertently increased the risk of virus transmission. 

In the new study based on EEG measures from 59 young American adult participants, the researchers assessed electrocortical reactions to another person’s norm-violating behaviors to see how individuals with varying degrees of germ aversion experienced disgust. Individuals who avoid risks like germ infection tend to prioritize and abide by social norms, and react more strongly to instances of norm violations. In this study, this tendency bore out when participants were not primed by an actual germ threat. But the trend reversed itself in the presence of a germ threat, unveiling this other, counterintuitive source of complacency: the very precautionary measures people undertake to shield themselves from potential germs. 

This study is the first to demonstrate that germ aversion has diametrically opposite effects on reactivity to others’ norm-violating behaviors, depending on the presence or absence of a germ threat.

“Ironically, these measures can lead individuals to underestimate the severity of a real threat when it arises, creating a false sense of security,” said Kitayama.

“People who are chronically concerned about germs regularly take steps to protect themselves from infections, and these steps are often successful,” said Ackerman. It may be that people react less vigilantly to evidence of active danger because their typical behavior has kept them safe in the past. 

By drawing attention to these mechanisms of complacency, we hope to shed light on the complex ways in which human psychology can sometimes work against our best interests in crisis situations, and underscore the need for sustained vigilance in the face of potential health threats,” said Kitayama. “With the COVID-19 pandemic officially behind us, it is crucial to remain vigilant and learn lessons to prevent complacency in the face of potential future pandemics.”

“It’s important to not just follow our regular patterns of behavior,” Ackerman added, “but to be on the lookout for evidence that disease rates are high in our surroundings. …We often think of complacency in the context of disease as an attitude exhibited by people who don’t believe in or care about the threat, but this research indicates that even the most concerned people can also react ‘carelessly.’”

Shinobu Kitayama and Joshua Ackerman are affiliated with the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Institute for Social Research.

Contact: Tevah Platt [email protected]