Signaling sickness: the role of recalled sickness behavior and psychosocial factors in shaping communication style




Shattuck, Eric
Perrotte, Jessica K.
Daniels, Colton
Xu, Xiaohe
Sunil, Thankam

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Oxford University Press


Background and objectives: Active infection results in several outward signs in humans, including visible symptoms, changes in behavior and possible alterations in skin color and gait. A potential adaptive function of these indicators is to signal distress and elicit care from close others. We hypothesized that sickness behavior, a suite of stereotypical changes in mood and behavior, also serves to communicate health status to others. We further hypothesized that such outward signals/cues of health status would vary based on context and sociocultural norms.

Methodology: We explored self-reported, recalled sickness behavior, communication style, demographics and theoretically relevant cultural factors in a large national US sample (n ¼ 1259) using multinomial probit regressions.

Results: In accordance with predictions, relatively few participants were willing to talk or complain about sickness to strangers. Self-reported, recalled sickness behavior was associated with some communication styles but attention received from others was more consistently associated with potential signaling. Several cultural factors, including stoicism and traditional machismo, were also associated with different sickness signaling styles.

Conclusions and implications: These preliminary, self-reported data lend some tentative support to the sickness behavior signaling hypothesis, though experimental or observational support is needed. The role of cultural norms in shaping how such signals are transmitted and received also deserves further attention as they may have important implications for disease transmission.

Lay Summary: Evolutionary medicine hypothesizes that signs and symptoms of infectious disease—including sickness behavior—have adaptive functions, one of which might be to reliably signal one’s health status to others. Our results suggest that evolved signals like these are likely shaped by cultural factors.



sickness behavior, signaling, stoicism, health communication, infectious disease




Public Health