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Into the hot zone of Hotlanta - What Ebola at Emory can teach us about risk perceptions

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Our team spent the past few days at the CDC National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media in Atlanta - and no, we did not catch Ebola. Many people asked me if I was worried about going to Atlanta. Based on the news coverage, I’m not surprised. But perspectives from medical experts suggested there really wasn't a risk at all (in fact, thankfully, both patients were released from the hospital this week). What gives?

What gives is a common challenge in risk communication - a discrepancy between expert and layperson perceptions of risk. More specifically, lay person evaluations of risks are often predicted by affective and subjective components of risk whereas experts tend to evaluate risks (at least within their personal field of expertise) probabilistically. (1)

What’s more, the general public relies on mediated information to form risk perceptions - and fear sells. A story that seems taken straight from a thriller movie (seen the movie Outbreak or read The Hot Zone?) grabs attention and sets imaginations running wild. It pays to sensationalize as this classic segment from Colbert points out:

On the other hand, the head nurse at Emory asserted that fears about the virus, which is spread through bodily-fluids and is not airborne, were “unfounded” and that bringing patients to the Atlanta hospital did not pose a public health risk. But which perspective do you think made a greater impact on people's perceptions?

We see this type of effect all the time in public health. For example, people are worried about flu shots but not texting while driving. The good news is that there's a theory behind why, and understanding it can help us craft more effective messages.


The basic idea is that fear has dimensions of both certainty and control (among others). Fear arises from perceptions that a risk is unpredictable (i.e., low certainty) and under situational (opposed to human) control. (2) Risk perceptions then can be influenced by reducing fear through communication that addresses certainty and control factors. The key is addressing the underlying drivers of overestimated risk from the audience’s shoes rather than from an expert’s perspective. Back to one of our most common themes – give people the information that will move them, not the information you think they need to make a rational decision.

Stay tuned for more thoughts...I mean breaking news, ALERTS, "you won't believe it" facts...on emotion and risk communication in the coming months. Dun dun dun.

  1. See, for example:
  2. See for example:

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