Thanks to the recent outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus, most people now recognize the need to maintain good hygiene as a means to avoid sickness.  And undoubtedly, frequent updates on death tolls, school closures and airport screenings from health officials and media figures also deserve some credit for the public's hyper vigilance in maintaining good hygiene--frequently washing hands, sneezing into shirt sleeves and so on.

While these behaviors can be good ways to prevent the spread of disease, is it possible that the current trend of hygiene awareness is overblown? Even to the point of turning people into germaphobes?

A forthcoming study in Psychological Science from University of Michigan psychologists, Spike Lee and Norbert Schwarz, tested whether a heightened perception of risk for a flu pandemic might unconsciously trigger fears of germs and other, totally unrelated hazards.

To test this, the researchers stationed an experimenter in a busy campus building and instructed her to sneeze loudly as students passed. The researchers then administered a survey to some of the students asking them to indicate their perceived risk of an "average American" contracting a serious disease, having a heart attack before age 50, or dying from a crime or accident.

The researchers found that those who had just witnessed someone sneezing perceived a greater chance of falling ill. They also indicated an increased fear of dying of a heart attack before age 50, dying in an accident or as a result of a crime. The researchers suggest that the
public sneeze triggered a broad fear of all health threats, even ones that couldn't possibly be linked to germs.

The researchers then asked the same people their views on the country's existing health care system. Those within hearing distance of the sneezing actor had far more negative views of health care in America.

This finding was so striking that the psychologists ran another version of the sneezing scenario at a mall. This time, the interviewer himself sneezed and coughed while conducting a survey on federal budget priorities (i.e., should the government spend money on vaccine
production or on green jobs?).

Participants were more likely to favor federal spending of $1.3billion on the production of flu vaccines rather than the creation of green jobs when the experimenter sneezed. Thus, in times of a flu pandemic, "public sneezing has the power to shift policy preferences from other current priorities (i.e., green jobs) to the production of flu vaccines," says Schwarz.