University of Michigan psychologists Spike Lee and Norbert Schwarz stationed an experimenter in a busy campus building and instructed her to sneeze loudly as students passed.
The researchers then administered a survey to some of the students asking them to indicate their perceived risk of an "average American" contracting a serious disease, having a heart attack before age 50, or dying from a crime or accident.
The study, published in Psychological Science, finds those who had just witnessed someone sneezing perceived a greater chance of becoming ill, dying of a heart attack before age 50, dying in an accident or as a result of a crime.
The researchers suggest that the public sneeze triggered a broad fear of all health threats, even ones that couldn't possibly be linked to germs such as dying in an accident.
The psychologists ran another version of the study with an interviewer, who sneezed and coughed while conducting a survey on federal budget priorities.
Participants were more likely to favor federal spending of $1.3 billion on the production of flu vaccines rather than the creation of green jobs when the experimenter sneezed, the study finds.