71 Visual Impact on Immunity

Based on Research by Mark Schaller, et al 2010. Psychology Science Minute written by Juanita N. Baker, Ph.D..

Would it be good for you to watch your friend struggling with her cold symptoms but not be so near to get her cold germs?

Social Psychologist Mark Schaller and colleagues showed two groups different slide shows: either showing people with obvious infectious diseases (e.g., pox, skin lesions, sneezing, mucous draining from their noses) or people brandishing firearms, most of which were aimed directly at the participants.  The researchers then analyzed participants’ blood tests that were taken before (when people were relaxed) and after (when participants in both conditions were stressed) viewing the slides. They found significantly increased levels of white blood cells’ production of IL-6, (an indicator of an immune response) in participants shown the diseased symptoms rather than the weapons slides. However, participants having seen the weapons slides self-reported more emotional distress.  So our bodies differentiate between types of stressful conditions and work to prepare for disease without our knowing it!

This automatic immune response to our recognition of disease may have been adaptive in human history, but is it still? What is the impact on our immune systems to repeatedly watching cold medicine advertisements showing some actor having cold symptoms? Repeated immune responses when there is no real threat can be detrimental. So don’t watch that TV Ad!


Schaller, M., Miller, G.E., Gervais, W.M., Yager, S., & Chen, E. (2010). Mere visual perception of other people’s disease symptoms facilitates a more aggressive immune response. Psychological Science, 21, 5, 649–652.

Segerstrom, S.C., & Miller, G.E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 601–630.

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