Home > Culture, Health > Ebola and ISIS and the Psychology of Fear

Ebola and ISIS and the Psychology of Fear

Ebola

There’s nothing like a good, sensational Ebola scare. Sure, Americans have virtually zero chance of contracting the disease. But that doesn’t keep 40% of the public from calling it a serious or moderate health threat. ISIS scares the bejesus out of us too. Some 70% of Americans in a CNN poll says ISIS has the capability of attacking the United States, even though you’d be hard pressed to find a single military analyst who would agree with the notion they’re anything more than a regional threat.

Here, the facts- the things you are way more likely to die of than Ebola or ISIS:

Being in a car: 30,000 people die every year in car accidents. If that many people were killed every year by terrorism, we would have built a gigantic moat around the entire nation and invaded 73 more countries.   According to the National Safety Council, what are the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident in the United States? It’s 1 in 112.

Odds of an American getting killed in a terrorist attack: 1 in 20 million (Washington Post). Odds of an American who has not traveled to western Africa getting Ebola? Virtually zero (Bloomberg.com).

Being legally executed:  What are the odds you’ll be convicted of a felony and then be put to death?  Way more probable than getting Ebola.  The National Safety Council says there is a 1 in 96,203 chance you will die from legal execution.

The Flu: Though safer than driving in a car, 23,000 Americans die every year from the Flu. But- Oh My God…where can I get a vaccine for that? Anywhere and for free, if you have a health insurance card.

Falling Down: Yup- there’s a 1 in 152 chance you will die by falling down. About 2 million times the chance of getting killed in a terrorist act or by Ebola.

Unintentional poisoning by and exposure to noxious substances: Chances of dying this way are 1 in 119. Right up there with car accidents.

Intentional Self-harm: 1 in 103.

Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease: It’s the second largest killer in the country- there’s a 1 in 29 chance you will die of lung disease.

Heart Disease and Cancer: The #1 killers in America. One in 7 will die from heart disease or cancer.

In an excellent article in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki, summarizes the odd, but quite common psychology we all fall victim to:

At work here is the curiously divergent and inconsistent way most of us think about risk. As a myriad of studies have shown, we tend to underestimate the risk of common perils and overestimate the risk of novel events. We fret about dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash, but don’t spend much time worrying about dying in a car accident. We pay more attention to the danger of Ebola than to the far more relevant danger of flu, or of obesity or heart disease. It’s as if, in certain circumstances, the more frequently something kills, the less anxiety-producing we find it.

Facts, are, indeed, stubborn things. Fear, however, is both stubborn and widespread.

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