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Re-post: Emotional Contagion of Pandemic Proportions

October 9, 2009

NOTE: This is a re-post of an earlier blog entry which I thought to be worth revisiting. Ultimately, there is no substitute for being a good consumer of information and unfortunately that means filtering the information one receives through news sources and also doing their best to read and understand the scientific research from where the sound bytes and informational “snippets” come from. Everyone has their slant. Everyone has their motive. Consumers, however, have to look at information with an open mind and fresh eyes, just as they would when purchasing a car or a home or even a pair of shoes. Remove the emotion, think critically and make a well-informed decision.

Subtitle: “The War of the Worlds II”

This morning I watched Vice President Joe Biden state definitively that “when one person sneezes [on an airplane] it goes all the way through the aircraft.” NBC News then reported that the White House quickly clarified “that applies to people who are sick – not everyone.” Biden went on to state that he has advised his family and everyone else not to travel to places where there are confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus. NBC’s Dr. Nancy Schneiderman respectfully disagreed with the Vice President.

VP Biden’s statement could perhaps leave someone watching the interview with the impression that one sneeze from row 28 could conceivably infect everyone on the aircraft up to and including row one. A representative of the CDC pointed out in response to VP Biden’s statement that the CDC is not imposing travel restrictions at this point because the virus has not spread to that extent as of yet. The CDC further clarified that the normal precautions with regard to mitigating the spread of viral infections (e.g. hand washing, sneezing into the elbow, etc.) still apply as best practices. Hence, common sense still rules.

Vice President Biden’s reactionary points are examples of root stimuli for emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is the tendency to “catch” and “feel” emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others. Someone experiencing emotional contagion might think they have suddenly discovered they have a sore throat and maybe even a fever after listening to a number of reports on the H1N1 virus. Fear is an inherent and essential ingredient in emotional contagion and without them, the phenomenon doesn’t occur.

Getting back to the common sense part: In order to avoid emotional contagion (especially in the H1N1 or Swine Flu case) one should arm themselves with reliable and valid information from the CDC or the WHO. Understanding what constitutes a reliable source of information is the tipping point to gaining accurate information. Of course with the proliferation of information being somewhat overwhelming at times through our many social networking outlets such as MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, etc., taking unsubstantiated reports or partial sound-bytes as being the “whole story” is a dangerous practice that will surely lead to misinformation.

I consider this misinformation to be the 2009 Swine Flu version of the H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” (1953) with an imagined news report going something like this:

“Tweet Decks are filling up with reports of people perishing at the outbreaks of the Swine Flu in every community across America. It has been reported in Oregon that entire communities are holing up in their homes and that Martial Law has been enacted due to the looting and shooting that has ensued. It seems that the posts keep coming on Facebook and MySpace as well with nobody being safe from this insidious and killer disease. A number of people have been reported to have broken into pharmacies across the country looking for vaccinations that might make them immune from this disaster and they are finding nothing but empty shelves. The Department of Defense has reportedly Tweeted that everyone should take cover and not answer their doors for fear of being exposed to the virus that threatens to wipe out humanity as we know it. Save yourselves people – save yourselves!! Oh the humanity!!

While I make light of overreacting to the situation I want to point out the flu can be serious for certain groups of people. However, in a broad sense, being a good consumer of information is a must in an age where we sometimes have more self-proclaimed “experts” that are loathe to read an entire official CDC report as opposed to taking one sentence (mostly out of context) and running with a Tweet that might cause others to panic. One step further down the information chain is the consumer’s need to take everything with a grain of salt and step back from it all, performing one’s own research before acting upon the “information” provided.

If only Chicken Little had taken such advice…

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