Ebola is everywhere in the news these days, even as Ebola trails other causes of death by wide margins. Clearly the risks are great, so some amount of fear is certainly justified, but many have taken it to levels that do not make sense scientifically, making back of the envelope projections for its spread based on anecdotal evidence and/or positing that its only a matter of time before the virus evolves into an airborne disease, as diseases regularly mutate to enable more killing in movies. Regardless of whether Ebola warrants fear or outright panic, the consensus is that it is scary, as also evidenced by its clear #1 ranking on Ranker‘s Scariest Diseases of All Time list. Yet, among those who are fearful, I couldn’t help but wonder, what are the characteristics of people who tend to be less afraid than others? Using the metadata associated with users who voted and reranked this list, in combination with their other activity on the site, here are a few things I found.
– Ebola fear appears to be slightly less prevalent in the Northeast, as compared to other regions of the US, and slightly more prevalent in the South.
– Older people tend to be slightly less afraid of Ebola, often expressing more fear of Alzheimer’s.
– International visitors to this list are half as likely to vote for Ebola, as compared to Americans.
– People who are afraid of Ebola are 4.4x as likely to be afraid of Dengue Fever.
– People who are afraid of Strokes, Parkinson’s Disease, Muscular Distrophy, Influenza, and/or Depression are about half as likely to believe that Ebola is one of the world’s scariest diseases.
Bear in mind that these results are based on degree of fear and ALL people are afraid of Ebola. The fear in some groups is simply less pronounced and only the last 3 results are statistically significant based on classical statistical methods. There are plausible explanations for all of the above, ranging from the fact that conservative areas of the country are likely more responsive to potential threats, to the fact that losing one’s mind over time to Alzheimer’s really may be much scarier for older people versus a quick death, to the fact that people who are afraid of foreign diseases prevalent in tropical areas likely fear other foreign diseases prevalent in tropical areas.
To me the most interesting fact is that people who are afraid of more common everyday diseases, including Influenza, which kills thousands every year, appear to be less afraid of Ebola than others. Human beings are wired to be more afraid of the new and spectacular, as much psychological research has shown. That fear kept many of our ancestors alive, so I wouldn’t dismiss it as wrong. But it is interesting to observe that perhaps some of us are less wired in this way than others.
– Ravi Iyer