Ebola is Scary—Perhaps too Scary?

With nearly 5000 misery-laden deaths and no end in sight, Ebola is, especially for Liberia and Sierra Leone, a West African health crisis.  It may not yet rival the last decade’s half million annual child deaths attributable to rotavirus—“Where is the news about these half-million kids dying?.” Bill Gates has asked.  But West Africans are understandably fearful. 

And North Americans, too . . . though perhaps disproportionately fearful?

Thanks to our tendency to fear what’s readily available in memory, which may be a low-probability risk hyped by news images, we often fear the wrong things.  As Nathan DeWall and I explain in the upcoming Psychology, 11th Edition, mile for mile we are 170 times safer on a commercial flight than in a car.  Yet we visualize air disasters and fear flying. We see mental snapshots of abducted and brutalized children and hesitate to let our sons and daughters walk to school. We replay Jaws with ourselves as victims and swim anxiously.  Ergo, thanks to such readily available images, we fear extremely rare events.

As of this writing, no one has contracted Ebola in the U.S. and died.  Meanwhile, 24,000 Americans die each year from an influenza virus, and some 30,000 suffer suicidal, homicidal, and accidental firearm deaths.  Yet which affliction are many Americans fearing most?  Thanks to media reports of the awful suffering of Ebola victims, and our own “availability heuristic,” you know the answer. 

As David Brooks has noted, hundreds of Mississippi parents pulled their children from school because its principal had visited Zambia, a southern African country untouched by Ebola.  An Ohio school district closed two schools because an employee apparently flew on a plane (not the same flight) in which an Ebola-infected health care worker had travelled.  Responding to public fears of this terrible disease, politicians have proposed travel bans from affected African countries, which experts suggest actually might hinder aid and spread the disease.

Déjà vu. We fear the wrong things. More precisely, our fears—of air crashes versus car accidents, of shark attacks versus drowning, of Ebola versus seasonal influenza—are not proportional to the risks.

Time for your fall flu shot?