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Putting swine flu worry into scope

Marketplace Staff May 4, 2009

Putting swine flu worry into scope

Marketplace Staff May 4, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Mexico is trying to bring its economy back to normal after 10 anxious days spent dealing with swine flu. Officials in Mexico City have lowered their threat warning. Schools are going to stay closed for another week or so, but cafes, libraries and museums are going to re-open to the public day after tomorrow. Back here a lot of people are still worried about the spread of the virus into their communities, even though the actual numbers on that might not add up. I asked behavioral economist Dan Ariely why.


Ryssdal: So long as you covered your mouth, and you wash your hands after that, that’s fine. Why is it that this flu has so captured the public imagination?

ARIELY: Here is the situation. It turns out 36,000 people die every year in the U.S. from the flu. But the question, of course, is why don’t we hear about the flu every day. If you say on average 100 people a day or more die from the flu, we don’t hear about that and all of the sudden we have this new flu that is making tremendous waves. And I think there are two reasons for that. One is that it’s a mutation of a flu, so it actually has the potential to becoming very damaging. But the emotional reason, the reason that most people are afraid is because we have identified a few cases of death, and we report about them with great intensity. And what happened is while statistical information, the number of saying 36,000 people die every year in the U.S. from the flu, is not as frightening as saying here is one person who died.

Ryssdal: Does that correlate then on the political level as to why we don’t have enough money set away for national pandemic prevention, why it’s always, it seems like last minute we’re trying to react to these things?

ARIELY: That’s exactly the case. Because if you think about it, it’s about when emotions get evoked. And it’s very hard to be emotional about preventing disaster from something that hasn’t happened yet. And one way to think about is imagine that you just bought a new suit, new pants, new shoes, new socks, everything is new. You spend about $1,000 on it. You walk over a bridge, and you see a person drowning. And you don’t have time to get your new clothes off, you have to jump, and you know if you jump all your clothes will be ruined. Nobody would hesitate. You would waste $1,000 on that instant to save one person’s life. Whereas in reality you could spend $3 in one day and save a kid from starvation or malaria.

Ryssdal: What does it say, though, that this disease seems to be so far, so completely random? It spread so wide and yet some people aren’t getting it, and some people are.

ARIELY: And that’s one of the reasons for fear. And you can make the parallel between this and terrorism. So if you think about more people die from driving, car accidents, then from terrorism, but people are much more afraid of terrorism than car accidents. And the question is why. And one of the reasons is people feel they are in control. When people drive they feel they are holding the wheel, and they are in control, and they can prevent death or accidents, when in fact you can to some degree but not perfectly prevent it. Whereas terrorism looks random, it’s completely outside of your control. And because of this terrorism is overly scary from a probabilistic perspective. And I think the flu is a little bit like terrorism, in the sense that you don’t see it, you don’t where it is coming, you don’t where it’s hiding, where it’s lurking. And it creates this uncontrollable environment.

Ryssdal: There is something though to thought of, you know, there is not much I can do about this, so why get all worried about it?

ARIELY: If we could only do it this way, it would be fantastic. But we can’t control what we worry about. There’s a beautiful experiment that was done many years ago, where they were trying to get people not to think about white bears. And I challenge you to spend five minutes not thinking about white bears.

Ryssdal: Yeah, now it’s impossible, right. That’s all I’m thinking about.

ARIELY: That’s right. So trying not to worry is most likely going to be counter productive.

Ryssdal: Dan Ariely. He’s a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University. His book on the topic is called “Predictably Irrational.” Dan, thanks a lot.

ARIELY: My pleasure.

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