Oh no, Ebola!

Nice post from my colleague Mike Cobb on how we way over-estimate the risks of things that are really horrible, e.g, contracting Ebola, dying in a plane crash:

In a CNN poll from September, 27 percent of respondents said they were “concerned” or “very concerned” that they or someone in their family would get Ebola. Translated into actual numbers, roughly 65 million American adults are worried about getting Ebola.

As of now, just one verified case of Ebola has been documented in the United States, and unless the extremely improbable happens, Ebola will not spread far or easily in the U.S. There are multiple reasons why this is the case, primarily because our health care system is better equipped to handle outbreaks of infectious diseases.

If the chances of anyone in the U.S. contracting Ebola are so minuscule, why do so many Americans worry about it? Is the news media fanning the flames? I think there is something to that, giving the blaring headlines about its appearance in the U.S.

If the chances of anyone in the U.S. contracting Ebola are so minuscule, why do so many Americans worry about it? Is the news media fanning the flames? I think there is something to that, giving the blaring headlines about its appearance in the U.S.

But worry about Ebola also fits a well-documented pattern where people worry more about things perceived as “dreadful, even if they are improbable.” Americans are unfamiliar with Ebola, so that adds to the diseases dreadfulness. The graph below – Source: Cutter S.L. 1993. “Living with risk – the geography of technological hazards – illustrates this relationship by plotting risk perceptions based on their familiarity and dreadfulness.

Risks versus perception

As an example, car related deaths have surpassed 30,000 per year for decades. Yet, car travel is so familiar and routine, that few adults fear driving. Meanwhile, air travel is seen as riskier even though it is safer than ever “In the last five years, the death risk for passengers in the United States has been one in 45 million flights,” according to one recent study.

For what it’s worth, I worry way more about a car accident than Ebola.  Though I cannot help myself for worrying a bit more than I know I should when I get on an airplane.  It’s all that damn illusion of control of car versus airplane.  Anyway, it is sad, but not at all surprising to see politicians whipping up further needless fears of Ebola.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Oh no, Ebola!

  1. jeffbc94 says:

    The saddest part of this graph is seeing where handguns reside, and knowing that will not do a damn thing to change popular opinion on whether/how they should be better controlled.

  2. itchy says:

    Agree with the general premise, but this is wrong:

    “Translated into actual numbers, roughly 65 million American adults are worried about getting Ebola.”

    No, 65 million American adults are worried that they or someone in their family will get Ebola. And what the respondents really mean is they’re worried “someone I know and care about” will get Ebola. Which allows each case to be applied to far more than one person.

    Also, even the things we’re “supposed” to worry about usually never happen. Therefore we absolutely expect the number of people who worry about an occurrence to far surpass the number of actual occurrences.

    That said … 65 million sounds like too many people worrying about Ebola.

    If your fake stock market was still active, I would love to see the macabre bet: Which will kill more Americans, Ebola or ISIS?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: