The Psychology of Ebola Fear

What do we know about the psychological factors that are likely to determine how fearful or worried you become about the current Ebola outbreak? It is a topic that certainly commands a significant amount of news time, and it is – of course – an infectious disease that to date has no effective treatment. There are good reasons why people who are at high risk of contracting Ebola should be cautious, but why do so many other people who are at very low risk of developing Ebola also fear the disease – often to the point of this fear being debilitating and distressing? Here are a few psychological processes that we know can influence the level at which you might fear a potential threat such as Ebola – all of which may contribute individually to raising fear levels.

1. Evaluation of risk: There is no doubt that most people are very bad at objectively judging risk, and many people are prone to simply overestimate the risk of bad things happening – especially to themselves. This often happens in mental health problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), where sufferers develop complex rituals designed to neutralize what they see as a high risk of contamination (in compulsive washing) or a high risk of danger (in compulsive checking). A recent study in Ontario, Canada, found that 4 out of 10 respondents worried that an Ebola emergency on the other side of the world could soon pose a threat to themselves. So why do some people develop such exaggerated assessments of risk? One reason is that they tend to perceive situations as dangerous until proven safe, whereas many others of us will tend to see situations as safe until proven dangerous! Most people are agreed that currently the risk of being infected with Ebola outside of West Africa is very low.  But for someone who perceives situations as dangerous until proven safe, the sense of risk for them will be disproportionately high, causing anxiety and worry – a fear that may well persist until an effective treatment is found.

2. Disgust sensitivity: One thing we know about fear of contamination is that it can be driven by the individual’s level of what we call disgust sensitivity. Disgust is a food-rejection emotion that we’ve all experienced when we encounter things like vomit, feces, or mucus. The purpose of this emotion is to prevent the spread of disease and illness through the ingestion of products that may be vehicles for disease, such as feces and mucus. However, people differ in their sensitivity to disgusting stimuli. For example, we know that people with contamination fears tend to have high sensitivity to disgusting objects (i.e. they react more strongly to things like feces and mucus). One implication of this is that people with high disgust sensitivity levels will be more fearful of contamination, and as a result will be more fearful of the risks associated with Ebola.

3. Negative Mood: We know that experiencing negative moods, such as anxiety or depression, makes potential threats seem worse than they are, so if you’re someone currently experiencing chronic anxiety or depression then you will be more likely to view Ebola as a threat. This is because negative moods significantly affect the way you process information. They cause you to unconsciously attend to threatening things, selectively retrieve negative or threatening information from memory, and interpret potentially ambiguous events as threatening rather than benign. In the context of Ebola, negative moods are likely to tip the individual to selectively attending to threatening information about Ebola, retrieving negative information about Ebola, and interpreting information about Ebola as personally threatening. All of this is grist to the mill of Ebola fear.

4.The Invisible Enemy: The problem with germs or viruses is that you can’t see them with the naked eye, so it’s very difficult to estimate how much of a threat a particular situation might pose (such as travelling in on airplane or even working as a health care worker in an isolation ward). This is particularly challenging for people who consider situations dangerous until proven safe, because how would you ever know you were safe if you can’t see the virus? This is a dilemma for many people who suffer debilitating OCD contamination fears, and is a factor that often makes the problem difficult to treat and recover from. Of course, a similar logic can also be applied to fear of Ebola.

5. Negative News: One factor that will undoubtedly fuel Ebola fears is the constant exposure to news bulletins about the disease. It’s not so much the mere exposure to news about Ebola that might fuel fear, but the degree to which individual bulletins highlight the fears and risks surrounding Ebola, and in particular how those bulletins try to convey these fears and risks in an overly emotional way. Because Ebola is becoming a long running news story, the media often need to create more and more sensational approaches to convey this story in order to maintain long term public interest in it – this creates emotional reactions in the viewer or listener which are likely to bias the individual towards viewing Ebola as a threat, and so begin to evoke fear and worry.

These are just some of the psychological processes that will influence fear of Ebola, and there are, of course, many others. But it is interesting that, as a threat to public health, the current Ebola outbreak possesses many of the features that are likely to bring these psychological factors into play – it is a disease, and so will interact with existing disgust sensitivities; it is an ‘invisible enemy’ which makes proving that you are safe very difficult; and it is associated with regular news broadcasts with ever-increasing emotional content.