Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Economics of Paranoia

Fear is an effective behavior modifier. It evolved for the purpose of keeping us safe; however, there are times in which it can backfire. When managing public health messages during a pandemic, it is important to know when to use fear tactics, and when to try something else.

Fear-based behavior modifications have a tendency to be knee-jerk, and more often than not the path to greatest immediate reduction of fear/risk will be taken, even if the action will ultimately lead to greater human suffering. For example, take the current debate over whether or not to shut down all flights to and from ebola-affected regions in Africa: while this is commonly presented as an effective means for cutting off transmission of the virus, it in truth isolates the population at highest risk and can only magnify the effects of the virus once contact is eventually reestablished. Not to mention, of course, the immeasurable human suffering that would accumulate the moment you cut off outside public health support. We cannot simply ignore the crisis in our midst – fear-driven avoidance of the problem can only lead to a greater fallout once our wall of false security comes crashing down.

But fear can be a good thing too, provided it leads to a healthy dose of caution. A much more effective measure to take against Ebola stateside would be a candid, frank public education program covering the risks and misperceptions about the virus, its transmission, and practical means of preventing its spread. Spread a healthy dose of fear, but reassure the public whenever possible. The White House has been making public announcements like this for a long time now; unfortunately, reservation never did make very good news. 

But there are also times in which scare tactics can backfire completely. Take Liberia, the epicenter of the infection. In the heart of the storm, the public has already been stressed to their limit. Entire villages are being put on lock down, while health programs are being overrun with little hope for reinforcement. This is a place where fear is already rampant – if there is a place where reactionary tendency is highest, this is it. The village lockdowns are only one example.

In Liberia, fear tactics are clearly too risky to be practical. So, what to do? As recent news has pointed out: if scaring people doesn't work, try making them dance! Try music. Liberian musician Samuel “Shadow” Morgan and co recently released a song, "Ebola in Town," that, while spreading a comprehensive message for risk reduction, does so in a catchy, danceable manner. The song has accomplished something fear cannot possibly do: it made its audience happy, if only for a while. And the people still get the message. 

Music can work wonders, especially in the worst of times. 

Matthew Billman


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