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.

Read the complete article on Research Center for Group Dynamics