Three Psychological Forces Feeding Ebola Hysteria


David Axelrod tweeted this today: Striking juxtaposition: Ebola fear rampant, despite negligible threat to Americans. But thousands fall victim to gun violence each year. 

My guess is your child’s risk of getting shot at school is way higher than the risk of anyone in your family contracting Ebola. But there’s no emergency action about gun violence today. So what’s stoking the flames of Ebola hysteria? And what can we do to dampen the flames? At a large group level, emotion is overriding rational thought. This has happened before in human history, too many times, and often to our great peril. Here are three contributing psychological forces:

Anti Scientism

It’s become acceptable in our culture today to dismiss science as opinion, or anti-religion, or even, weirdly, un-American. The boundaries between wish, belief and fact are readily blurred, especially under times of emotional strain or crisis. Though the threatened Ebola epidemic is far smaller than the epidemics of say, hunger, or asthma caused by environmental pollutants, or the health effects of climate change, Ebola captures our attention in a way other, more familiar killers do not. It’s new, it’s eerie, it’s scary and it’s different. It is a throwback to the bad old days when families and lovers and babies and doctors were carried away by infectious diseases—the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, the tuberculosis epidemic of the 19th and early 20th century (and continuing today in many parts of the world), and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s come to mind. Not to mention millennia of the plague, cholera, etc. Ebola represents a medical novelty at the same time it is a reminder of past health crises we hoped we could forget, the infectious diseases that killed people in vast numbers before antibiotics and antivirals and modern sanitation. This newness combined with echoes of a deadly past lead to fear and fear tends to reduce attention to science. Political leaders need to stress the relevant science every time they speak about Ebola. They need to resist the urge to institute policies, like irrational quarantines, that are not based on good science. The media need to cite the science up front in every story. A recent New York Times feature, based on a New York health department press release on the path taken by Dr. Craig Spencer through Manhattan did a disservice. It was terrifying, not reassuring. Was I on that subway? Did I eat a bagel at the coffee stand he visited? Never mind that he was not infectious, according to all available science, when he bought his coffee and travelled downtown.



Groupthink and Groupfeel

It’s a strange but well observed phenomenon in human affairs that groups are often more irrational than individuals. Once a group gets its mind attached to a frightening idea, the idea spreads, whether or not there is any evidence to back it up. Mob psychology is dangerous. Groupthink is a concept described by the social psychologist Irving Janis in the late 1960’s. (1) In groupthink group members coalesce around a set of accepted ideas. Then they stick to them, ignoring facts that are at odds with the group’s beliefs. Janis demonstrated that groupthink contributes to the polarization of ideas and bad decision-making. In a groupthink atmosphere, there’s tremendous pressure against introducing new ideas or considering  new perspectives.

The psychoanalyst and economist David Tuckett extended Janis’s idea to describe “groupfeel”. Individuals involved in a group feel better if they belong and share the group’s attitudes. In this kind of regressive group process, individuals “do not each process any available information about events in external reality individually…evidence from outside about what might be factual and not tends to be treated merely as background noise. What makes members of such a group feel secure is not any consideration of facts but the fact that they are all doing the same thing together” (2)

Simply put, if there’s a bandwagon around, we—and that includes governors and other political leaders—have a strong urge to get on it. It would be great if before putting any policy into place about Ebola, our leaders were aware of the danger of groupfeel and groupthink.

Science is the best weapon here too. Any proposed public policy should be assumed to have the risk of being irrational. Measure it by available scientific knowledge. Make a conscious effort to consider alternate, even opposite possibilities.

Courageous and firm scientific thinkers have actually been all over the news lately demonstrating this kind of thinking which counters the emotional impulse to quarantine all of Africa and teaches us that such an action is not only impossible but also dangerous, leading to a greater risk of a widespread epidemic later.


Stressed and Scared, we Scapegoating the “Other”

—Africa is far away and unknown to us

Here’s another dangerous but unfortunately common human practice. When frightened and stressed, both individuals and groups search for a scapegoat. They try to control their anxiety by locating danger outside of themselves or their own group, “over there.” And then they separate themselves from that other person, group or place. The choice of someone or something that is strange, different or unknown is important. “Not us”. “Not here”. If the danger is “out there” then maybe we’re safe. For most of us in the US, Africa is distant, unfamiliar and, we think, not like us, not like here. The health care workers subject to irrational quarantines have dared to visit that “other place”. If not infected with Ebola, they are certainly infected with our fears.

The truth is uncertainty, illness, death, infectious disease, and any new threat are all scary things, and they’re real. They’re also a part of life, and always will be. We should spend a lot of resources, both financial and human, helping contain the Ebola epidemic where it has broken out. Countries like Liberia that have instituted containment policies have done very well. We should do this out of compassion and also to promote the greater global public health. We should also remember –and value—science and rational thought. They will save us from a lot of foolish and harmful decisions.

(1) Irving Janis: Victims of Groupthink: a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1972.

(2) David Tuckett: Minding the Markets: An Emotional Finance View of Financial Instability. UK: Palgrove Macmillan, 2011. p. 68


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