An aisle over in the grocery store, someone lets out a nasty cough, and you shudder. “That person sounds really sick,” you think as you head in the opposite direction.
A new study may prompt you to think again. Humans can’t hear a difference between the cough of someone with an infection and someone with a mere tickle in the throat, researchers report June 10 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
People can fight infections off with the immune system, but that can take a lot of energy and doesn’t always work, says Nick Michalak, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Many organisms, including humans, have developed prophylactic behaviors to prevent pathogens from [causing infection] in the first place,” he says, like being grossed out by possibly infectious material like feces or snot.
He and his colleagues played short audio clips of coughing from apparently sick and healthy people collated from YouTube for over 200 volunteers, asking whether each cough was from someone who was ill or not. Despite expressing confidence in their abilities, participants did no better than a coin flip in distinguishing between the two types of coughs.
Michalak says that previous audiological research has revealed differences between sick and healthy coughs, but the human ear may not be able to distinguish them. Or perhaps people need to integrate how a person sounds with other observations, such as how someone looks, to make an accurate assessment.
While many are on high alert for avoiding infection right now amid the COVID-19 pandemic (SN: 5/14/20), Michalak says that this study should give people pause before jumping to conclusions based on the tenor of someone’s cough alone.