Human sickness detection is not dependent on cultural experience

Artin Arshamian, Tina Sundelin, Ewelina Wnuk, Carolyn O'Meara, Niclas Burenhult, Gabriela Garrido Rodriguez, Mats Lekander, Mats J. Olsson, Julie Lasselin, John Axelsson, Asifa Majid

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Animals across phyla can detect early cues of infection in conspecifics, thereby reducing risk of contamination. It is unknown, however, if humans can detect cues of sickness in people belonging to communities with whom they have limited or no experience. To test this, we presented Western faces photographed two hours after the experimental induction of an acute immune response to one Western and five non-Western communities, including small-scale hunter-gatherer and large urban-dwelling communities. All communities could detect sick individuals. There were group differences in performance but Western participants, who made inferences about sickness by observing faces from their own community, were not systematically better than all non-Western participants. At odds with the common belief that sickness detection of an out-group member should be biased to err on the side of caution, the majority of non-Western communities were unbiased. Our results show that subtle cues of a general immune response are recognized across cultures, and may aid in detecting infectious threats.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20210922
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1954
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Jul 14

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • General Language Studies and Linguistics
  • Medical and Health Sciences


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