The Psychology of Ebola Panic

Take your kids out of school. Fill the house with food. Hoard gas.

Posted Oct 04, 2014

Ebola is coming. Take your kids out of school. Fill the house with food. Hoard gas.

Wait, what?

We are starting to hear some stories of what might seem like extreme reactions to the Ebola news filling our news. But many of us might be feeling high levels of anxiety about it. It might help to understand some of the psychology behind our unease.

First, there is no need for a high level of anxiety if you live in a western country like the US or Europe.  While there has been a few cases of Ebola in these places over the years, there has never been a death. While that fact is likely to eventually change, the important point to remember is that having Ebola in the US is not the potential death sentence that it is in Africa. So the odds of you catching Ebola is extremely low, minuscule. The chance of dying from Ebola is lower still. We should be more worried about lightning, ladders, and baths. Yes, bathtubs are dangerous. About 25 babies die in the bathtub each year in the US.

Yet we are worried about Ebola. Why?

First, we overestimate the probability of rare events...the proverbial black swans. We overestimate the likelihood of winning the lottery, so we buy tickets. We overestimate the probability of a “long-shot” winning a horse race and bet on it. We especially overestimate the frequency of rare causes of death.

Second, we pay more attention when the news is salient. Ebola news of people suffering and dying in Africa creates vivid images and triggers strong emotions. It makes sad and scared.

Third, people overweigh recent information relative to all other information about a topic. The media is running on 24/7 mode with the Ebola stories, which makes them available and recent. There have been dozens of outbreaks of Ebola in Africa since 1976. Scientists and disease control specialists know a lot about the disease. But recent news is overweighed in our thoughts about the situation relative to all that we know.  

So as more events and stories about Ebola fill our news, expect some people to be profoundly impacted by the recent and salient information and overestimate the chance that it could affect them. That is, more people are likely to take extreme actions.  

But that is more about the psychology than it is about the facts. So relax.

Now I’m off to wash my hands. :)