One Study to Explain Ebola Panic

At the height of the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic in 2009, University of Michigan researchers sneezed on unsuspecting people. Here’s what they learned about hysteria amid outbreaks.

A health worker watches as a burial team collects Ebola victims from a Ministry of Health treatment center for cremation on October 2, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia. Eight Liberian Red Cross burial teams under contract with the country's Ministry of Health collect the bodies of Ebola victims each day in the capital. More than 3,200 people have died in West Africa due to the epidemic.
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Oct. 23, 2014, 9:32 a.m.

It was 2009, and the United States was in the midst of a full H1N1 pan­dem­ic. Pub­lic con­cern about the dis­ease, com­monly re­ferred to as swine flu, was right­fully swell­ing. Though nowhere near as deadly as the cur­rent Ebola out­break in Africa, H1N1 in­fec­ted 60.8 mil­lion people in the United States, res­ult­ing in 12,469 fatal­it­ies. By Au­gust 2009, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found that 45 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans were wor­ried that they or a fam­ily mem­ber would con­tract the dis­ease.

Uni­versity of Michigan re­search­ers wanted to see if they could stoke that fear. Their ex­per­i­ment, con­duc­ted in May 2009, was both mis­chiev­ous and simple. Un­der­cov­er re­search­ers sta­tioned around Michigan’s cam­pus ap­proached people and asked them to com­plete a ques­tion­naire on pub­lic health. Half of the time, the ex­per­i­menter sneezed in front of the un­sus­pect­ing par­ti­cipants.

Re­mem­ber, this was dur­ing a time when col­lege cam­puses were ground zero for H1N1 in­fec­tions. Sneez­ing close to oth­ers was not cool. The ex­per­i­ment was also re­peated at an off-cam­pus shop­ping mall, an­oth­er po­ten­tial petri dish of flu trans­mit­tal.

That sneeze proved to be a power­ful ma­nip­u­la­tion, pro­vok­ing fear about all things health-re­lated. “Those who had just passed a sneez­ing con­fed­er­ate [i.e., un­der­cov­er re­search­er],” the au­thors write, “per­ceived the av­er­age Amer­ic­an as more likely to con­tract a ser­i­ous dis­ease, to have a heart at­tack be­fore 50, and to die from a crime or ac­ci­dent.” People who saw the sneeze were also more neg­at­ive about the coun­try’s health care sys­tem, and more in fa­vor of spend­ing fed­er­al dol­lars on flu pre­ven­tion. When the un­sus­pect­ing study par­ti­cipants were de­briefed, they re­por­ted that they wer­en’t aware they had been ma­nip­u­lated.

The ex­per­i­ment’s takeaway was this: When the per­cep­tion of risk in­creases, the feel­ing of risk in­creases. This les­son is in­struct­ive in think­ing about why some pock­ets of Amer­ica are over­re­act­ing to the threat of Ebola.

The chances that Ebola will in­fect any giv­en Amer­ic­an is in­cred­ibly, in­cred­ibly small. There have been four in­fec­tions in the United States since the first case was dia­gnosed here last month. On the Net, bad jokes abound about how low the chance of con­tract­ing Ebola is—jokes like “Amer­ic­ans are more likely to marry Rush Limbaugh than die of Ebola.”

To our col­lect­ive cred­it, the Amer­ic­an people are think­ing pretty calmly about the dis­ease’s threat. Just 24 per­cent of re­spond­ents to a re­cent Gal­lup Poll said they were wor­ried about con­tract­ing Ebola. But for some com­munit­ies who see them­selves as be­ing just a few de­grees of sep­ar­a­tion away from Ebola, the threat has pro­voked pan­ic. To ex­tend the meta­phor from the Michigan ex­per­i­ment, these com­munit­ies are be­ing sneezed on or are act­ing out of fear of be­ing sneezed on.

Par­ents in Mis­sis­sippi (a state that has not seen a case of Ebola) have pulled their chil­dren out of a middle school be­cause the prin­cip­al was re­cently in Africa. A school in Ohio closed for dis­in­fec­tion after Am­ber Vin­son, a nurse who con­trac­ted the dis­ease in Dal­las, flew through Clev­e­land and made con­tact with a par­ent of a stu­dent. A Texas col­lege has denied ad­mis­sion to stu­dents who come from Ebola-in­fec­ted coun­tries fear­ing they might bring the epi­dem­ic with them. Some con­ser­vat­ive politi­cians are pe­ti­tion­ing to close the south­ern bor­der lest an Ebola-in­fec­ted mi­grant stroll across it.

For these people, Ebola hits a psy­cho­lo­gic­al nerve, a base evol­u­tion­ary re­ac­tion to re­coil from the things that can cause us or our com­munit­ies harm. And that re­ac­tion be­comes stronger when the dis­ease creeps closer. These psy­cho­lo­gic­al re­ac­tions hap­pen on a gut level, and we aren’t al­ways aware they oc­cur. It’s im­port­ant to re­cog­nize that even when the threat of Ebola seems to be grow­ing closer to a com­munity, it’s prob­ably fur­ther away than it ap­pears.

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