do. This reaction may have to do with our amygdala, which
research suggests plays a role in detecting novelty as well as
processing fear. In one recent study, for example, Nicholas
Balderston and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–
Milwaukee found that activity in the amygdala increased when
participants looked at unfamiliar flowers right after seeing
pictures of snakes (PLOS ONE, 2013).
And, at the same time, people often under-react to familiar
threats. For example, influenza sickens as much as 20 percent
of the population a year, and kills thousands. Yet because most
people have had the flu and survived, or know someone who
has, people may feel less urgency toward getting a seasonal flu
vaccine. This may help explain why the U.S. vaccination rate for
the 2013–14 flu season was only 46. 2 percent.
Diseases that are familiar but with which people lack direct
experience also rank lower than novel threats in terms of
perceived risk, which may be a factor behind some parents’
reluctance to vaccinate their children.
“We’ve gone a couple of generations now largely without
pertussis and varicella, so society hasn’t seen the risk,” says
Barbara Reynolds, PhD, a psychologist and director of the
Division of Public Affairs at the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC). “It’s hard to ask the parent to take an action
to protect against a risk that’s invisible to them.”
It’s that sense of immediate risk that leads people to take
preventive measures in the face of contagion, Slovic says.
Following the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, for example,
research looked at reasons people did, or didn’t, get the
vaccine. One meta-analysis showed that a perception of
personal risk was the most influential factor in whether a
person got the vaccine, followed by social pressure and past
behavior (Vaccine, 2011).
Framing risk, reducing panic
Timely, honest communication from a source an audience
deems credible is essential to containing fear during an
epidemic, but governments have the tough job of explaining
risk and telling people how to act without also seeding alarm,
says Carnegie Mellon University psychologist Baruch Fischhoff,
PhD. He chaired the Food and Drug Administration’s Risk
Advisory Committee and the Environmental Protection
Agency’s Homeland Security Advisory Committee.
“The discipline is very straightforward: Identify the few
things that people most need to know and figure out how to
explain them in clear, trustworthy terms,” Fischhoff says.
Yet as the Ebola situation unfolded, experts say, health
agencies lost credibility. “Initially there were some cases of
infection that were seen as mistakes or errors and [that]
cast doubt on whether CDC was being careful enough and
suggested that protocols weren’t being followed, so that was
quite alarming,” Slovic says.
Hyperbolic media coverage also exacerbated the situation. As
Reynolds says, “Modern communication allows people to have a
more intimate experience with a threat that’s not real.”
American media have the propensity to find — and publicize
— aberrant behavior, helping to perpetuate a myth that people
tend to respond to a crisis with panic, Fischhoff says.
“Disaster researchers know that brave behavior is the norm,”
he says. “If we had the evidence — some of which we’re now
collecting — I think that it would show that Ebola had little
effect on most people’s lives, even if they paid attention to it,” he
The Lancet reported that in October there were more than
21 million tweets about Ebola in the United States and that
reporting on the disease in the United States and the United
Kingdom “tended to encourage substantial misunderstanding
about the risks of exposure and where the real threat and causes
of Ebola lie.”
But the media can be an ally when it spreads precise
and useful information. During the 2009 H1N1 influenza
pandemic, for example, Australian and Swedish media both
accurately framed the risk of contracting the illness. Swedish
outlets, however, were even more effective because they
reported ways viewers could protect their health and openly
admitted the uncertainties about the epidemic, while Australian
media reported more negatively on public agency missteps
(Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 2013). Despite having
similar vaccination rates overall before the pandemic, during
the outbreak of H1N1, the vaccine rate in Sweden was 60
percent, versus 18 percent in Australia.
Focusing, as Swedish media did, on what people can do to
protect themselves is particularly important for people who
are vulnerable to stress and anxiety, research suggests. In a
survey conducted during the H1N1 pandemic, researchers from
Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, found that people who
were least able to tolerate uncertainty overall experienced the
most anxiety during the pandemic and were less likely to believe
they could do anything to protect themselves (British Journal of
Health Psychology, 2014).
Experts agree that giving people concrete, detailed actions to
take can help reduce panic and overreaction when a new threat
emerges. When a number of schools in Texas faced a threat of
MRSA bacterial infection a few years ago, Reynolds counseled
local health officials to explain, step by step, how to wash hands
thoroughly, so that the procedure resembled a ritual.
“When you tell people they can protect themselves simply by
washing their hands, it seems an inadequate action,” she says.
Messages may be more helpful when delivered in creative
formats, too, Reynolds adds. “Infographics and visuals are very
powerful. We can’t just tell people things, we have to show
them. When people are using the more primitive part of their
brain, visuals are more powerful than our higher order tools,
It’s also important that the content and tone of
communications speak to the intended audience.
“Scientists and public health officials may assume that other