Culture Might Influence Feeling of Being Sick, Researchers Find

It is deemed normal for an individual to express certain behaviors or sensations when feeling sick. Social scientists at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) are now saying culture might play a role in these sensations or sickness expressions, besides the natural responses.

Supporting Culture

Humans have sickness behavior in common with other living creatures. It includes symptoms of sickness or illness, such as weakness and loss of appetite. The belief has been that such behavior results from a biological response.

In this study, UTSA researchers found out, however, that culture may influence how a person expresses a sickness or an illness as well. They observed that factors such as gender, income, and social norms have an effect on the expression of sickness.

An interesting finding was that people described as stoics, who claimed to have high pain tolerance, were more likely to express sickness more.

“It’s ironic,” said Eric Shattuck, a biological anthropologist at the Institute for Health Disparities Research. “You think that being a stoic would mean that you are more likely to be reserved, but according to our survey, it has the opposite effect.

He said stoics could deem an illness as a bragging right and so keep a disease for a length of time longer than normal.

Examining the role of culture

For this study, researchers made use of responses provided by more than 1,250 respondents in surveys. The participants claimed to have had either flu or the common cold in the previous year.

Researchers asked these subjects to rate their present state or feelings of sickness. They used a Likert-type scale to rate the feelings, ranging from “not sick” to being “severely sick.”

The team found that the values of a person impact their views of what is a “socially appropriate sickness.”

Stoic participants who earned below the U.S. median household income of about $60,000 showed a greater likelihood of claiming to be ill. This remained true no matter the gender.

Shattuck explained that this group of subjects probably expressed sickness or illness more because lower incomes made it harder for them to seek medical care.

“This perhaps made them remember the illness,” he said.

In addition, men who had stronger family bonds showed a greater tendency of reporting more intense sickness sensations.

The researchers stated that this might be because the male subjects felt more cared for. They, therefore, sought that support they enjoyed all the more.

Implications and further research

Researchers in this study said that their findings may have implications for how people take more proactive steps to treat illnesses instead of spreading disease.

Shattuck pointed out that it is the work culture that makes many people, including medical professionals, to show up at their workplaces despite being ill, as shown in other research. Yet, such actions have their consequences.

The researchers noted that people may be more likely to express sickness when it is something like a common cold. However, they might show a lesser tendency of doing the same when it involves a more serious disease, such as HIV or coronavirus infection.

Shattuck and his colleagues now want to repeat the study again. This time, the research will involve people who are sick at the time, compared to those that needed to recall such an event.

They also plan to study how the degree impacts the reporting of an illness.


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