Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

Why do we fear Ebola more than the flu?

by Take Two®

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Police officers stand outside 546 W. 147th street, the apartment building of Dr. Craig Spencer, Oct. 23, 2014 in New York City. After returning to New York City from Guinea where he was working with Doctors Without Borders treating Ebola patients, Spencer was quarantined after showing symptoms consistent with the virus. Spencer was taken to Bellevue hospital to undergo testing. Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

Ebola has come to the Big Apple: American Dr. Craig Spencer picked up the disease in Guinea.

Upon returning to New York, he rode the subway, took a cab and even went bowling. Some Manhattanites are understandably worried.

But when Ebola has killed only one person in the U.S., are we ignoring other, greater threats? For example, more than 1,000 people died last week from the flu.

Dan Ariely explains why we sometimes pay more attention to the dangers smaller in scope than the ones around us all the time.

He's a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, and author of several books including, "Predictably Irrational."



I don't usually start by asking this, but in this case, how are you feeling?

It's interesting that the fear is so high. Someone came to my office from Texas and she said everywhere she goes people are afraid of her to some degree. It could be people who know her.

If you think about this disease it's really quite strange because we know the people who are suffering and contracted it. Can you name someone who died of a heart attack yesterday? I'm sure many more people died yesterday from heart attacks and diabetes and car accidents. We can't name any of them.

Is it because it's just a few people and their names are splashed along CNN crawls? Is this why get more jittery about Ebola than we do with diabetes, heart attacks, what have you?

There are a couple things. One is called the identifiable victim effect. It's the idea that when we see one act, one instance of tragedy, our heart goes out to them and all of a sudden we know details about them, we feel their pain. It stays with our memories but also evokes our emotions in a very strong way. When we think of something big that happens to thousands of people it doesn't have the same emotional impact. You'd think something that affects 1,000 people would be 1,000 times stronger but it's actually weaker. The moment we add more people to a tragedy it actually evokes our emotion to a lower degree.

On top of that, Hollywood. Think of all the movies that have been about Ebola and diseases like this. There is a very interesting phenomenon where we remember things but we don't remember where it came from. Movies are really amazing in creating images in our brains. These images are connected to Ebola but you don’t remember they come from a movie and not reality.

With heart attacks we have a little more control (such as what we eat.)

There's lots of things in life, the feeling of control is really important. Driving is an interesting instance; we really have little control—someone could drive into us—but we feel that we're in control. Terrorism has this extra fear that comes from the idea that someone is doing it on purpose to you and it's random and I think randomness is a big part of it.

On the Ebola front, is there a silver lining? Are people taking better care of themselves with better hygiene?

When the swine flu was out a few years ago, people took the regular vaccination with higher frequency and they washed their hands to a higher degree. So I'm hoping this will happen this time as well; more people will talk about the flu, more people will take vaccination, maybe people will wash their hands more. 

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