I have a very distinct memory of my grandfather dying from leukemia in an Iowa hospital. I peered in through a glass window, too scared to don the white mask and gown to visit him myself, even though the protections were for him, not me. Granted, I was eight. But fear of disease, and fear of those who have disease, makes perfect sense to me, even now.
But, that realization is tempered by knowledge of the harmful effects of irrational fear, the topic of a recent study by a team of Stanford researchers. As described in a recent Graduate School of Business story:
Throughout history, minority or “out” groups have been blamed for the spread of infectious disease. In medieval Europe, for instance, Jews and gypsies were among those accused of spreading the deadly bubonic plague. In 1793, during the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, local officials singled out actors, vaudevillians, and artists for transmitting the disease. But what is it about the fear of contagion that makes otherwise rational people buy into rumors about those they consider to be outsiders?
Organizational behavior researchers Hayagreeva Rao, PhD, and recent graduate Sunasir Dutta, PhD, developed an online pilot study where one group was told a new strain of flu had emerged, then asked about their views on immigration. The control group was simply asked about immigration.
Not surprisingly, the group told about the flu was less likely to support immigrant legalization. Dutta said he is convinced the results would be even more striking in the real world:
Practically speaking, the implications are clear: "Don't do immigration reform during flu season," says Rao.
The study also demonstrates the power of rumors to spur fear, even ethnic violence, Dutta said. And it illustrates the need for proactive, responsive communications, particularly in the beginning stage of epidemics when irrational fears can germinate.
Previously: Fear factor: Using virtual reality to overcome phobias, Fear of recurrence an issue for some cancer survivors and Looks of fear and disgust help us to see threats, study shows
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