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.