The Heuristic that Caused the Ebola Panic of 2014

How did the media cause an Ebola panic? The human mind did half the work.

Posted Dec 06, 2014

This is a guest post by Geoff Danilack, Williams College Class of 2016.

The Ebola virus – the panic of 2014. Since September, news of the Ebola hemorrhagic fever has spread like wildfire throughout the United States. It is a particularly gruesome disease, resulting in massive amounts of internal bleeding among other things, which is unnerving to say the least. But it is largely a West African disease. A vast, enormous majority of existing and pre-existing cases of the virus have been found in the West Africa region, and rarely does it get out.

However, the epidemic has worsened in Africa, and as of September, Ebola has surfaced in the United States. As one might expect, the news of a rare African deathly disease in this country caused something just short of hysteria among the American population. Why? Because the media went wild. Article after article surfaced with the tiniest developments in the American cases, and sources providing general information about Ebola even started popping up on Facebook news feeds. The media themselves had to begin calming citizens down, attempting to reverse this effect. Fox’s Shepard Smith insisted, “We do not have an outbreak of Ebola in the United States, nowhere.”

In fact, the total confirmed cases of Ebola in the US are only 4. The first was a man who had just come from Liberia. He was diagnosed with the disease on September 30th, and passed away on October 8th. Two of the healthcare workers who provided care for that patient in the most severe stages of the disease contracted it, one on October 10th, one on October 15th. They were transferred to NIH Clinical Center and Emory Hospital in Atlanta, respectively. Both have since recovered and have been discharged. One last medical aid worker returned from working in Guinea (in close contact with the virus) to New York and was diagnosed with Ebola and isolated (CDC).

That is it. The only actual transmission of Ebola in the United States occurred when a man in the last stages of the disease (most contagious) transmitted it to his healthcare professionals. “There is no information to suggest that the virus has spread to anyone in the general population of America,” says Smith. “Being petrified is ridiculous. The panic that has tanked the stock market and left people fearful that their children will get sick at school is counterproductive, and lacks basis in fact or reason. There is no Ebola spreading in America.” So what is it that leads people to believe otherwise?

Articles are a dime-a-dozen claiming that Americans have been overreacting to the local threat of Ebola. A more interesting question, though, is: How does the media infiltrate the mind of the average American and instill such fear where there need not be? The answer is that the human mind does half the work. The simple ongoing prevalence of news articles and reports about the Ebola virus invokes a strategy called the availability heuristic. People call upon this strategy when trying to find out information to make a decision. They rely heavily upon frequency estimates, or how often something has happened in order to make this decision (Reisberg, 2012). In this case, the American population was trying to decide whether Ebola is a problem for them or not. Not many knew the facts; all they knew were the number of publications about the Ebola virus, clearly exhibiting a high frequency estimate.

When it is the case that the human mind estimates a high frequency of something, they employ attribute substitution, “a strategy of using easily available information that (you hope) is a plausible substitute for the information you seek” (Reisberg, 2012, p. 401). Without all the facts about Ebola, Americans could only substitute the quantity of Ebola related news as an estimate for the extent of the disease. “With this strategy, you’re basing your judgment on availability – that is, how easily and how quickly you can come up with relevant examples” (Reisberg, 2012, p. 401). With the media flooding the news, Americans had no shortage of relevant examples. No wonder they panicked. “The organization of memory creates a bias in what’s easily available, and this bias in availability leads to an error in frequency judgment.” (Reisberg, 2012, p. 403).

Compounding this effect is emotion. Every time you see a new article about Ebola, you feel a little unnerved, perhaps a little fearful. The attachment of emotion to these articles makes them even more memorable, more available. Your mind can easily grasp at these things to draw conclusions (Reisberg, 2012, p. 403). This is exactly what has happened with the reporting of Ebola. This is exactly what happens when the media reports about any particularly dramatic or groundbreaking phenomenon. Do not fall for it, because it is not productive. The next time you see an article about Ebola, do not employ a fallacious availability heuristic. Try not to use attribute substitution, or become fearful. Try to find the facts before you draw conclusions. Yes, this is more time consuming, but well worth it when you are trying to avoid a panic.

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Works Cited

Reisberg, D. (2012). Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind. New York: W.W. Norton.