The psychology of irrational fear

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Last week Sen. Rand Paul, a doctor, laid out the threat of Ebola in America thusly, to CNN: “If someone has Ebola at a cocktail party, they’re contagious and you can catch it from them.”

That statement is, of course, not true, unless the person is symptomatic, in which case he or she would not be up for hummus and chardonnay. But it’s not as untrue as what Georgia Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey, also a medical doctor, wrote to the CDC:

“Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus, and tuberculosis are particularly concerning.”

If Gingrey were to consult a map, he might be relieved to find that West Africa is several thousand miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border. And that, Ebola being what it is, someone in the throes of the hemorrhagic fever would be unlikely to muster the strength to fly to Mexico and then sprint through the South Texas desert…

It’s a big time of the year for fear. Not only is it Halloween, a holiday more recently known for sexy hamburgers but originally famous for its spookiness, but also because the U.S. has had four (now one) cases of Ebola diagnosed on its soil. Maybe it’s the combination of the two that helps explain the abundance of ridiculous statements like the above in recent weeks…

Of course, Ebola is partly a stand-in for our ongoing collective anxieties, ever simmering and child-leash-purchase inducing. In calmer times, we might instead be wringing our hands over gluten, swine flu, or that illegal immigrants are coming here to “steal our jobs.”

A recent survey from Chapman University found that Americans are most afraid of walking alone at night, identity theft, safety on the Internet, becoming the victim of a mass shooting, and having to speak in public.

The study also found that Democrats were most likely to be worried about personal safety, pollution, and man-made disasters. Republicans, meanwhile, had the highest levels of fear about the government, immigrants, and “today’s youth.” It also found that having a low level of education or watching talk- or true-crime TV was associated with harboring the most types of fear. Despite the fact that crime rates have decreased over the past 20 years, most Americans, the survey found, think all types of crime have become more prevalent…

RTFA. A compendium of silliness we get to view every day of our lives in what is reputed to be the leading modern nation on this planet. I’m more certain of the silliness than the leadership part.

Thanks, Mike

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