Photo from the study. On the left is the picture of a subject injected with bacteria; the healthy subject is on the right. Photo: Audrey Henderson
Photo from the study. On the left is the picture of a subject injected with bacteria; the healthy subject is on the right. Photo: Audrey Henderson

 

Is it possible to determine whether someone is sick or healthy from just a photograph? The answer is yes according to a new study from researchers at Stockholm University and the Karolinska Institutet that was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

John Axelsson Photo: Sara Appelgren
John Axelsson Photo: Sara Appelgren

John Axelsson, Professor of Psychobiological Sleep Research at the Stress Research Institute, Stockholm University, alongside his colleagues there and at Karolinska Institute, has studied whether it is possible to detect if people are healthy or sick after seeing a photograph of them for only five seconds. The photographs were taken after participants were made sick from an injection of a bacterial component that causes strong immune reactions and after a placebo injection.

“Participants [who looked at the photos] were considerably better than chance in correctly judging whether the person in the photo was sick or healthy. Pale skin and drooping eyelids were the factors most strongly related to their determinations of who appeared sick. An ability to recognise sick people could help us avoid being infected by them,” says John Axelsson.

Non-verbal signals used to improve healthcare diagnoses?

The researchers at Stockholm University plan to conduct more studies using other groups of individuals. One of the goals is to understand whether this knowledge about non-verbal signals of health could be used to improve diagnoses in healthcare.

Reports of the research have appeared in Science, The Guardian, The Washington Post and Time Magazine as well as numerous online outlets. Readers are especially keen to see the continuation of the study, which will include subjects with other ethnicities. (The original 16 participants were all white.)
 

Articles

Science, Two ways you can tell someone is sick just by looking at them

The Guardian (UK), Humans can spot small signs of sickness at a glance, research suggests

The Washington Post, These subtle cues are what make sick people look sick

Time Magazine, Here’s How You Can Tell If Someone Is Sick Just By Looking At Them
 

Original article: Identification of acutely sick people and facial cues of sickness in Royal societies Proceedings B January 3 2018.
 

Stress Research Institute, Stockholm University