Expert Voices

To Fight Ebola, Battle the Brain's Bias for Mistrust (Op-Ed)

An artist's image shows a stormy human mind.
(Image credit: Lightspring/

Paul Zak is professor of economics, psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of "The Moral Molecule." Richard Morris, a Managing Partner at Regenesis Strategy & Analytics, and Walter Montgomery, a Partner at the strategic-communications firm Finsbury, contributed to this essay. They provided this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights

It's a good thing that Craig Spencer, the New York doctor who contracted Ebola while treating patients in Guinea, has gotten better — and not just for his sake. If New York had not prepared, if just one other person had become infected because of him, there is no saying what kind of panic might have followed.

According to infectious-disease specialists, unless one comes in direct contact with the bodily fluids of a person who is actively — and very visibly — ill with Ebola, one's chances of contracting the disease are vanishingly small. But most people do not naturally take such assurances very well. The U.S. government and other critical organizations could have done more than they did to ease the collective blood pressure of our citizenry. In addition to all the essential preparedness and protective measures, the most important priority is to establish trust through effective communication. 

The brain and bias 

The federal government at one point compared Ebola to the annual fall influenza outbreak. We have been reminded that in 2010, more than 53,000 people in the United States died from the flu, making it the eighth leading cause of death, and that by contrast, there have been only two confirmed cases of Ebola contracted in this country, both of them nurses who cared for a patient infected in West Africa. 

Such facts do little to calm fears because of two peculiarities in how our brains process information. The first is known as the availability bias. Anything happening today is much more important than things that happened long ago. This causes us to pay more attention to the here and now. [Science of Fear Explained in Spooky Video ]

The second bias in the brain is known as the dread effect. Events out of our control, ones that can go bad fast, are given extra attention by our brains. This is why people fear accidents at nuclear power plants or plane crashes well out of proportion to their likelihood of occurrence. 

The human brain is an exquisite cost-benefit calculator. But it is not an unbiased one. Both the availability bias and the dread effect were evolutionarily useful ways to keep our ancestors safe. They do this by skewing the brain's evaluative system toward fear and avoidance. 

When these influences are tamed, people evaluate risks in a less biased way.  

Chemistry and the fearful mind

My lab, and others, have shown that the neurochemical oxytocin decreases the stress induced by factors like the availability bias and the dread effect. Oxytocin is stimulated when we receive trusted information from another person. In work with my colleague Jennifer Merolla, we have shown that oxytocin increases trust in government, but only when those around us also trust the government. 

Subsequent research I did with Jorge Barraza discovered that narratives with emotionally engaging characters induce oxytocin release in viewers. Using funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, we showed that these human-centric narratives are the most effective way to change people's beliefs. 

If you're a topical expert — researcher, business leader, author or innovator — and would like to contribute an op-ed piece, email us here.

Changing the Ebola fear response 

Our findings suggest several things the government could do to ease hysteria in cases such as Ebola. First, a multimedia campaign is essential, using character-driven stories about those who have interacted with people diagnosed with Ebola but were not infected. This campaign should include stories about the many health care workers who remained healthy after caring for Ebola patients , including Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas — the only person who has died in the the United States, after contracting Ebola in West Africa. It is true that two Dallas nurses became ill after contact with Duncan, but they were outnumbered by many other heroic — and uninfected — health care providers here.

Second, the personal stories of Ebola survivors can help calm fears and build a culture of trust. Only belatedly did such stories begin to appear in news outlets, but their effect was significant. Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, for example, were both infected while caring for patients in Africa, and were successfully treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Historically, people infected with the Ebola virus have a 50 percent survival rate. In this year's Ebola outbreak, only four of the 18 people treated outside Africa died, a 78 percent survival rate. There will probably be new cases, but the point remains: Each of the survivors had a story to tell, as did the clinicians who cared for them. If this information were properly relayed to the public, it would increase confidence that the United States can both detect and treat Ebola infections effectively.

Finally, send the message out through every channel available. Social media are especially effective in a case such as this, since many online users will see the message forwarded by a credible friend (remember the impact of oxytocin). The White House was a bit slow to embrace this technique, but then used it aggressively. Whatever you may think of President Obama's policies, the photo of him hugging Nina Pham, one of the two Dallas nurses who became infected and recovered, spoke powerfully.

That is the message people need to hear when there is a crisis of public anxiety in the face of a poorly understood risk. Ebola is just one example, but an important one. It has shown that human-scale narratives speak more loudly than statistically-based arguments, for reasons that are very much part of our brain chemistry. Ebola hysteria, like the virus itself, can be controlled.

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

Claremont Graduate University; Richard Morris