The Slippery Slope From Fear to Panic

Is it human nature to overreact to things outside of our control?

Comments: 22

  1. Some this can be traced to innumeracy. Even people who have taken statistics courses do not really believe them. Know the risks, do not worry about that which you cannot control, and control that which you can!

  2. I think a lot of the blame can be levelled at the media. During the height of the hysteria it was impossible to turn on any newcast, cable or network, that did not breathlessly deliver hyped-up gloom and doom. I just turned it off. It was impossible to watch. Maybe it sells ads, but I don't get it. My advice to people is to turn of the damn television. It's very restful.

  3. If it is indeed human nature, then I fear I am not human.

    Cooler heads always, always prevail. Sometimes it just takes an incredibly long view to realise that.

  4. It is totally due to over-dramatized media coverage. Ignorance doesn't help--the number of people who don't realize that the annual death toll from ordinary seasonal flu in the U.S. is around 36,000 (as opposed to something like 2 or 3 confirmed swine flu deaths so far) is huge. If they knew that the ordinary flu--the one that people often don't bother to get available vaccines for--was a vastly bigger killer, I doubt they'd be running out to get face masks and demanding that every school with a few sick kids close for the other few thousand students.

  5. Isn't it funny how the people who freaked out first about the swine flu was the media? And they weren't even really afraid of the illness, they were afraid that it would fade away quickly and that they would lose their story. What a joke. Journalism is dead in America. RIP.

  6. We are scared, because times like these require us to rely on public officials that in the past have made erroneous decisions. (EPA in 2001, and FEMA in Louisiana)
    I am keeping my daughter out of school these days because I know that the testing facilities in Brooklyn are overwhelmed and so that there is insufficient information on who is sick and who is not. My daughter has a class mate who has a brother in a another school who is in the hospital due to 'a flu'. Until I know more I don't want to expose her to a classroom. Call me paranoid.

  7. Well, actually, a full blown 1918 flu is a pretty scary thing. Doctors know a bit more now than then but still very little.

    On the whole, are the intelligent if slightly panicky scientists in charge of these things crying "wolf" too often? I don't think so. Unless you want to wait until there are 50M dead before calling pandemic, you have to put up with a few false alarms. Try to respond rationally and get on with your life until you have to deal with it.

    And this current one may yet not be a false alarm, although it does kind of look like one.

  8. The problem with genetically modified foods is not any danger of consuming them. It's that they contaminate the ecosystem, which has sensitivities that we consistently underestimate. That's why certain weeds have taken over environments, killer bees have displaced european bees in South and Central America, mosquitoes have exploded in Hawaii and so on. This is a real danger with franken foods! Not that their may be some GM corn in my chips. But this just underscores the main point: people don't really know the real things to be afraid of.

  9. 'Media reacts to news', 'public reacts to media' - aren't both truisms?

    Please keep reporting and trust your readers to adjust to the ebb and flow of news. If in doubt, imagine how much scarier news of disease or disaster are when delivered via some absconce grapevine. And remember that the edge of every news bit blunts out sooner rather then later - whether tragedy, comedy or catastrophe.

    You may or may not be able to experience this without a flight of imagination or listening to dreadful stories from far-fug countries. Count your blessings! The difference may even be worse a false positive or two, let alone the potential over-reaction here and there.

    If so inclined, someone might even want to see where 'human nature' strikes a balance between these two extremes. The endeavor seems eminently feasible, somewhere between media and economics.

  10. If President Obama fails to get Universal Heath care for the American people we will see President Rush Limabgh do what Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia did to solve the problem. Yes all the minorities will be invited to the a party as they get invited by President Rush. President Rush will leave the party and lock everyone in and well you know the rest of that story. If Dick Cheney were still President he would just let sick/poor Americans die and say his now famous word SO, as he did about our troops dying in Iraq.

  11. hold on a second.. The so-called swing flu does seem to be just a bad flu, mostly (although it's reported proclivity for those younger than 30 is something to keep mind ..for all those "overreacting" parents out there). But we didn't know any of this, for sure, just 2 or 3 weeks ago. The reported mortality rates coming out Mexico early on were alarming. You'd have to be dense not to take a heightened interest and feel something akin to fear, especially if you've read accounts of the flu pandemic of 1918. Some of the victims collapsed on the streets and died. Fear is a good motivator. If you hear gunfire, fear makes you duck. It's healthy sometimes.

  12. I believe the statement "(the flu agent is a virus, untouched by anything antibacterial)" is incorrect. Antibacterial lotions are mostly alcohol, and according to Wikipedia "alcohol-based hand rubs, [are] very effective at inactivating influenza viruses." [Grayson ML, Melvani S, Druce J, et al. (February 2009). "Efficacy of soap and water and alcohol-based hand-rub preparations against live H1N1 influenza virus on the hands of human volunteers". Clin. Infect. Dis. 48 (3): 285–91. doi:10.1086/595845. PMID 19115974.]

  13. Swine flu hysteria led to irrational restrictions and scapegoating. See
    I think that the press contributed to the hysteria with their 24/7 doomsday coverage. An entire school system in Texas was shut down because 1 kid had suspected swine flu. Fortunately, there have been only a handful of fatalities in the U.S. Meanwhile, 36,000 Americans will die from the yearly seasonal flu this coming year. I haven't read even one headline on this story.

  14. As far as the idea that scare tactics may help people stop smoking, or stop eating red meat, I highly doubt that will work anywhere. Here in Brazil they are required to put labels showing the scariest possible things on packs of cigarettes. Cancerous lungs, dead fetuses, you name it, there is a picture on the back of every cigarette pack. It seems to me that smoking is still a little more popular here then in the US.

  15. I have a friend in the media and she said that the goal is to find and extend the swine flu stories as long as the media can possible keep it going. If you suggest stories about anything else you don't know what news is. That seems to me to say that the media feels they can get viewers to tune in if they (the media) can keep it scary enough. I think honest media is dead. Media hype has taken over.

  16. It seems to me that apathy is far more common response to dangers we can do little or nothing about individually. A little panic now and then at least indicates some public interest, even though the more rigid of our bureaucrats may lose some sleep over the prospect.

    On the health issues, however, such as AIDS and Flu, swine or otherwise, the predictions made by public health wonks are not falsified if they do not come about. Those same predictions trigger or create artificial responses -- mass vaccinations, education, quarantines, treatments -- that are intended to prevent them from happening. Failed predictions, then, are signs of successful counter actions.

  17. It may be that people overreact to the never-ending 24-hour news coverage and are overly frightened. However, I am very grateful that we have well-educated, hard-working doctors, scientists, and public health officials who are investigating and analyzing novel viruses and disease outbreaks. Without their work, we would truly have more to worry about.

    Part of the problem is that analysis of new diseases takes time, and CNN et al are not able to wait for the analysis and remain calm--they go straight to the alarm bell. Gavin de Becker has it right in his book "Fear Less"--turn off the TV.

  18. Ms. Brody,
    The authors of Panicology, and unfortunately your story, ignore overwhelming evidence from a variety of fields of science the inherent realities in human biology and psychology which explain the gap between our fears and the facts. From Joseph LeDoux and others' studies of the amygdala and neural architecture and chemistry of fear, to Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky et. al.s' Nobel Prize-winning work on the heuristics and biases that shape our judgments under conditions of uncertainty, to the work of Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischhoff and others on the psychological factors that make some risks feel scarier than others, regardless of the facts, there is just a wealth of scientific evidence that explains the phenomenon you write about...evidence the authors of Panicology, and you, fail to mention. You also unfortunately buy the trite use of the word "panic" as a synonym for being afraid or worried.
    There is SO much more here that your readers deserve to be told in a story headlined "The Slippery Slope from Fear to Panic."

  19. “the effect of the mumps-measles-rubella vaccine on autism (none, it turns out)” - if this is true then why did the vaccine manufactures insist that they not be held liable for faulty vaccines?

    "genetically modified foods (foods have been genetically modified for thousands of years through hybridization with far less predictable results" - this is simply a pure lie - genetically dissimilar organisms can not crossbreed. Please show me a genetically engineered food seed that can reproduce itself!

    Where have the monarch butterflies gone?

  20. It seems to me that significant effort has been directed toward forestalling panic among the public. This underestimates our ability to confront the realities and to act on our own behalf. More seriously, it misses the opportunity to harness productive fear into a catalyst for preparedness.

    At this juncture, it seems reasonable to be fearful. The illness we’re facing is new, unfamiliar, and fatal in some young and healthy individuals. While repetitive mainstream media coverage can bias our perceptions of risk, it does not necessarily correlate with scientific certainty.

    It is understandable to want to hedge our bets. But the price of getting it wrong here – i.e., by underpreparing – is considerably higher than that of overpreparing, even though the latter could result in significant costs and so-called wasted effort.

    Instead of seeking to reassure us, public officials would be better off to acknowledge our (and their own) uncertainty while simultaneously providing leadership, critical information and choices. Active preparation has the practical benefit of increasing self-sufficiency and the emotional benefit of reducing or at least managing anxiety.

    We all wish the reality were different, but here we are. The goal should not be merely to prevent panic, but to convert legitimate fear into increasing our collective resiliency.

  21. Our fears are lazy. Of the threats to our lives, we fear most what requires the least work on our parts and fear least what would require the most work to change -- ourselves.

  22. Swine Flu should never be compared with the "ordinary" seasonal flu. Seasonal flu predictably will kill 300,000 people a year and Swine Flu has only killed 300, so it's "Hardly worth the worry." This is the difference: Swine Flu has the potential to kill hundreds of millions and sicken one out of three people WORLDWIDE if it develops anywhere near the virulence of the 1918 Spanish Flu. Regular flu does not have this ability. Don't be fooled by some people who say swine flu is nothing. Go on-line and inform yourself from the experts.

    Helen Rivas-Rose
    Kennebunk, Maine