Monthly Archives: May 2009

Diagnosis: DREAD – Talking about Epidemics, Panic and the Revenge of the Germs with Philip Alcabes

By David DiSalvo        

flu germIt’s a huge understatement to say that panic is part of human nature. We’re all wired to anticipate threats and experience nervous system overdrive when they arrive – our species wouldn’t have made it this far if we didn’t. But what happens when the anticipation itself is enough to trigger heart pounding panic?  And stranger still, why do threats as rare as they are vague cause more panic than threats that surround us every day? 

Those are a couple of the questions that infectious-disease epidemiologist Philip Alcabes set out to investigate in his newly released book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Plague to Avian FluWhat he couldn’t have known, however, is that his book would begin hitting bookstore shelves just as swine flu began consuming the public consciousness – providing a more than timely example of a dread-catalyzing threat with mass-panic potential.  

Dr. Alcabes spent some time talking with me about epidemics real and imagined, how we respond to threat inspiring messages in the media, and why our attention is riveted by remote threats while tangible ones close to home are not hard to find. 


We’re right in the middle of what appears to be a full-blown epidemic just as your book is hitting the shelves. What’s your take on what we’re seeing in the news?

book alcabesAll epidemics are stories.  They often have a widespread disease at their core (often but not always, as the epidemics of “cyber-stalking” and school shootings attest).  But the numbers of the sick, dying, and deceased aren’t the main aspect of the story.  There have been 50-odd deaths associated with the new flu strain as we speak.  Does 50 deaths make for an epidemic?  That’s less than the death toll on American highways and roads on the average day.  It’s less than the toll taken by malaria in Africa in any one-hour period of any day.  It’s sad, and it’s a frightening reminder of the randomness of nature’s deadly bite.  But 50 deaths from accident, incident, or infection doesn’t always constitute an epidemic for us.

In fact, the numbers of cases of swine flu and the flu death rate are both quite low in comparison to the normal situation with seasonal flu, the “bug” that comes around every winter.  If this were January, we might not even have noticed this outbreak, as it would have been hidden by the far larger and more lethal outbreak of plain-vanilla flu.  In fact, if in any given winter the death rate from flu were as low as it’s been in this springtime outbreak, we’d be relieved and call it a mild flu season.


But would you agree that it’s truly an epidemic – the “real thing”?

alcabes-portraitYet, I would agree that this is an epidemic — simply because that’s what people say.  In fact, as we speak, the W.H.O. has raised the “pandemic alert” to 5 on a scale of 6.  Our officials are leading the way in making sure that this small outbreak (it has affected a handful of countries, with about 2500 cases in Mexico so far, 90-odd in the U.S., and scattered clusters elsewhere) is indeed defined as an epidemic.  Possibly a pandemic.

The question I ask myself is, why is it so important to us to see this small, thus-far mild outbreak of flu as a scary situation?  Why should W.H.O. feel the need to act? 

In part, it’s because we’ve been primed for this.  Our health agencies (the W.H.O. most notably) have been telling us for years that a flu pandemic is “inevitable.”  All those agencies needed a case-in-point to justify their dire warnings, otherwise the “pandemic preparedness” campaign might have gone the way of the prior “bioterrorism preparedness” campaign (2002-2004):  simply withered away from lack of interest.

But more deeply, the preparedness rhetoric influenced our thinking.  Repeatedly gesturing toward the terrible 1918 flu outbreak, in which tens of millions of people died worldwide, authorities and flu researchers reminded us to think of 1918 when we think of flu.  The result, as we see now, is that the few facts available about the new flu serve as the basis for projections of our horror fantasies.  People (again, including W.H.O. officials) talk about the inevitability of a “pandemic,” about the likelihood that there will be more cases and more deaths. 

So, if by “real thing” you mean, is this a public health problem, I’d say yes.  People are sick with a contagious disease.  More might fall ill.  It demands attention from public health authorities.

But if you mean, is this the disaster that is being depicted, I would say not yet, and probably not ever.  The problem is that once the fantasy scenarios start being painted, the facts become scenery on the stage.  It’s the fear that drives the drama.  We’ll undoubtedly see more fear-driven pronouncements.  I hope we’ll also see good public health.


We’re hearing some health officials say that this flu is a harbinger of diseases to come — an evolved mutant virus combining multiple strains.

pigs_deadThis is, simply, influenza.  What flu does is switch back and forth between species, recombining genetic elements, mutating here and there, “reinventing itself,” to use the term of art.  I suspect that calling it “swine” flu gives it a certain pernicious cachet, “swine” being associated with filth in the language.  But it seems important to us to label this virus with its own name, not just as flu but “swine flu,” as if it had some special status.  I think the naming helps us to be frightened.

Is it a harbinger of the future?  Well, I don’t have that particular crystal ball.  A lot of people who call themselves flu researchers and whom the media refers to as “experts” are fond of making predictions about pandemics, as if they could see the future.  This has gotten us into trouble at least once, in the swine flu immunization fiasco of 1976 (when hundreds of Americans were sickened by a flu vaccine and over 30 died, yet there was no serious outbreak).  And it gets us into trouble when, as with “bioterrorism,” we spend a fortune protecting ourselves from a chimeric threat. 


But how do we plan to protect public health unless we make some predictions about possible outcomes?

I think we have to draw a distinction between sensible planning for sound public health programs based on observable facts, and so-called predictions that are really just projections of horror fantasies.  We have to be careful with this flu outbreak, because, as I said earlier, there are a lot of fantasies afoot, and because many of them hark back to 1918.  We have to remember that the world is a very different place than it was in 1918.  We have to do good public health to ease suffering and control disease — but we don’t want to get into the business of divining the future.  We should stick to what we know, and can see, and what we know how to do about what we can see.

Continue reading


Filed under Interviews

You Want the Truth? You Can’t Mimic the Truth!

nicholsonEmpathy research of the last 15 or so years has reinforced the mantra that mimicry–the tendency to imitate the behaviors and expressions of other people–not only smooths the wrinkles of social interaction, but also facilitates better emotional understanding.  The idea being that mimicry helps people feel what others are feeling and more accurately understand one another.

And when it comes to truthful interaction, plenty of studies suggest this is the case. But what about during deceptive interaction?  If mimicry helps me better understand you, will it also help me to know when you are lying?

A new study in the journal Psychological Science set out to answer that question.  Participants were asked to interact with and mimic or not mimic people who claimed to have made a donation to charity — some of whom really had made a donation, others of whom were lying.  In total, the experiment included three participant groups operating under three conditions:  (1) Told to Mimic, (2) Told not to mimic, (3) Control — no instructions given. 

The results:  Nonmimickers were significantly better at identifying the liars than mimickers — and this result held true when comparing the nonmimickers to mimickers and to the control group.  Also worth noting is that all three groups were generally not very good at detecting lies (though the nonmimickers were the best), which buttresses another well-tested theory that, overall, people are just not very good lie detectors.

These results have several implications.  That used car salesman who is trying to put you into a “great deal” — be careful not to mimic him. Ditto for just about any salesperson you come in contact with; while they may or may not be lying to you, it’s best to put as much objective distance between you and them as you can, and evidently mimicry reduces that distance. And that guy who shoulders up to you at a bookstore or coffee shop to tell you about a “great business opportunity” — don’t even talk to that guy. 

And a word to the police: when you’re “good copping” someone you think might have committed a crime, watch out because the perp might be working you over. Previous studies have shown that mimicking a suspect may influence the interviewer’s feelings about the suspect’s trustworthiness, and that can bias the investigation in the wrong direction.  

The big takeaway: keep tabs on your mimicking and you’ll likely get played less often.


Filed under About Research

Booze Makes Your Mind Wander, But You Won’t Notice

splash-martini-8793Have you ever had a couple drinks and your mind started wandering in a booze-induced haze?  If you can’t remember that happening, that’s probably because you had a couple of drinks.  A new study in the journal Psychological Science suggests that alcohol has the dual effect of causing our minds to wander while not noticing that we’ve zoned out.

After a pre-drink assessment to make sure that they weren’t just space cadets, study subjects were brought into a drink-mixing room and presented with all the makings of a vodka and cranberry juice cocktail.  They were told to drink a small dose over a ten-minute period, and then a 20-minute period, and a 30-minute period.  What some of the subjects didn’t know is that they were drinking flat tonic water and juice, with vodka smeared on the glass to enhance believability.

Afterward, subjects were asked if they’d ever read War and Peace (they had not), and were then told to read the tome for 30 minutes. Just before they started, they were given a definition of “zoning out” that went like this — “At some point during reading, you realize that you have no idea what you just read; and not only were you not thinking about the text, but you were thinking about something else altogether.” 

While reading, they were told to press a key on a keyboard labeled ZO whenever they felt themselves zoning out. And every two to four minutes after they hit the ZO key, a prompt would come up on a monitor asking them,”Were you zoning out?” — in response to which they were to press a “yes” or “no” key. 

The results: subjects who drank alcohol zoned out without realizing it about 25% of the time while reading, double that of the tonic water placebo group.  And with double the opportunities for catching themselves wandering, you’d think the alcohol subjects would catch themselves zoning at least a little more than the sober group, right? Wrong. They were exceptionally bad at noticing when their minds had floated into the ether.

What does this tell us?  Researchers who conducted the study think that alcohol amplifies attention drift — the tendency to shift focus onto immediately engaging things  (I’m really hungry, where’s my cheeseburger?) with the added dimension of not even realizing we’re not focusing on whatever it was we were supposed to focus on.  In other words, at the risk of stating the obvious, this is yet another way that alcohol impairs self-regulation. As if we need any help with that.

Leave a comment

Filed under About Research

When Faced with Stereotypes, Picking the Positive Sidesteps a Psych-out

math_girlA new study from researchers at the University of Indiana shows that women have grown wily to the effects of stereotypes.  When faced with positive and negative stereotypes related to performance, they identify with the positive, avoiding the psych-out effects of the negative. 

Take the mathematics stereotype, for example. Previous studies have shown that women perform worse on mathematical tasks if they’re only aware of the negative stereotype that women are weaker at math than men.  In this study, however, lead researcher Robert Rydell took the analysis a step further by asking: what would happen if women were made aware of a positive stereotype at the same time as the negative?

The study included four experiments in which female undergraduate students were asked to perform difficult math problems. Some of the students were made aware only of the negative stereotype, that women are worse at math than men. Some of the students were only made aware of a positive stereotype, that college students perform better at math than non-college students. Some of the students were made aware of  both stereotypes. And the final group was given no information at all.  Between 57 and 112 new female students were used for each experiment.

The results:  In all four experiments, women who were made aware of only the negative stereotype performed worse on the math problems than women from all other groups.  The reason for this effect, identified in this and past studies, is that negative stereotypes steal working memory resources. The power of the stereotype is self-fulfilling — the worse you’re told you’ll do, because “everyone knows [your gender / ethnic / racial / socioeconomic group] can’t do this well,” then the worse you’re likely to do.

The new finding of this study is that the women who were presented with both the negative and positive stereotypes did not suffer from a working memory deficit, and thus didn’t perform worse on the math problems.  In other words, the presence of the positive stereotype neutralized the negative’s effects.    

One takeaway from this study is that, as consistently shown in research, negative stereotypes are powerful. If unchallenged, they will negatively affect performance.  But when experienced alongside an equally potent positive stereotype, the negative loses its steam because we become more motivated to align ourselves with the positive. 

The problem, of course, is that in the real world we’re not in control of the stereotypes that come at us.  But we are in control of our reactions.  So maybe the grand takeaway from this study is that when faced with a negative stereotype, immediately think of a positive one that applies to you as well and work one against the other. If you can neutralize the negative, it’ll scurry off and let you get on with the tasks at hand at full power.
Rydell, R., McConnell, A., & Beilock, S. (2009). Multiple social identities and stereotype threat: Imbalance, accessibility, and working memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96 (5), 949-966 DOI: 10.1037/a0014846

1 Comment

Filed under About Research