Ebola virus virion 670 x 447
Photo: Creative Commons

Let me open with an apology. I am going to talk about Ebola. I know, we are all saturated with the scary news, the dismal failures, the finger pointing, and the stupidity that under different circumstances would have been hilarious. But here I want to take a different tack and cast a cold analytical look at the phenomenon. My starting point is, on the face of it, a bit surprising: Behavioral Economics. But don’t despair. This is not going to be a dismal science discussion. It may even lead us to a somewhat surprising insight.

 

Prospect theory

A major pillar of modern behavioral economics is called prospect theory. Without getting into the minutiae of the theory, its basic observation is that Homo sapiens (the thinking man) is fundamentally quite irrational. One of the principles of prospective theory is loss aversion. When directly compared or weighted against each other, losses loom larger than gains. In fact, this has been quantified: the “loss aversion ratio” has been estimated in several experiments in the range of 1.5 to 2.5. The psychologist Paul Rozin, an expert in disgust, observed that “a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches”. As he points out, the negative trumps the positive in many ways and loss aversion is one of many manifestations of a broad negativity dominance. 

Why should we be so loss averse? Why is a negative bias so dominant?  It has deep evolutionary roots. Organisms that treat threat as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce. This basic survival strategy has taken some surprising turns. Experiments have shown that an angry face “pops out” in a crowd of happy faces, but a single happy face does not stand out in an angry crowd. Rozin and his cherries and cockroaches could have predicted that.

Anatomically, the psychology of early detection of angry faces is readily explained. The distance from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, where decision-making resides, is shorter than the distance from the reticular formation (the reward pathway). Result: we respond quicker to unpleasant messages. Once the more pleasant messages arrive, a few milliseconds later – it’s too late. We judge the new information in the shadow of the negative input. Threats do not have to be real, even symbolic threats evoke a threat response. The word vomit evokes the same response as the physical act itself. Which brings us to Ebola.

How to generate fear

I watched one of the Sunday morning talk shows. Obviously, it was all Ebola all the time. The medical and public health experts were all rational, measured, and largely reassuring. The virus doesn’t spread in the air, not even by bodily contact. The only means of spread are through contact with bodily fluids, and only when the patient is symptomatic. Then one guest (a non-physician advocate) proceeded to describe how horrible the disease is: excruciating pain, diarrhea, vomiting, uncontrolled bleeding from all orifices. The camera was fixed on the speaker, who revelled in the gruesome description. But for a split second the camera panned to the panel, made up of network correspondents, political analysts, and politicians; eyes were wide open, pupils dilated, facial expression ranging from fear to disgust.

If highly educated people had this response, can you blame the “unwashed multitudes?”

 

The malevolence of fear mongers

Given the facts, you’d expect leaders to try and calm the roiling anxiety. And most knowledgeable authorities did just that. But then there are those who pour fuel on the fire. Larry Klayman is a well-known legal activist who believes that Obama was not born in the United States. Last week, he sued the U.S. Government for intentionally allowing Ebola into the country so as to divert attention from Obama’s support for ISIS! I kid you not. Is he merely the lunatic fringe? The “base” of the GOP has many people like him. All you need is listen to the pile of…misinformation (this is a family blog after all) coming out of the Fox holes. Could the politicians be far behind? I counted five congressmen, all having R after their name, joining in. One went as far as advocating “sealing the border” because ISIS is planning to cross it and spread Ebola as a biological weapon. Another version of the same delusion: Hamas will infect themselves with Ebola as a biological weapon and cross the Mexican border, thus spake rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina. This goes beyond stupidity – it is shear malevolence. These people should be exposed and repudiated in the strongest terms. Unfortunately, so far there is only a deafening silence coming out of the GOP.

 

On the more positive side

Churchill said once that Americans always make the right choice – after they’ve tried all the other. History tells us that these waves of fear and outright hysteria always subside. Fear mongers were never successful in the long run. In neurological terms, the prefrontal cortex eventually receives all the information, weighs the evidence and arrives at an informed decision. The truth will triumph.

 

 

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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