Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis:Prior studies suggest that adults often over-react to the threat of contagious diseases spreading throughout the United States. Overestimating such risks can result in large economic losses and restrictive social policies, yet underestimating such risks could result in high rates of infection and fatalities. Several factors can distort risk perceptions, including the perceived proximity of the virus, the perceived ease of contagion, and the level of dread associated with contracting the disease. The current study investigates the impact of these factors on the perceived risk of becoming infected with the Ebola virus when traveling on an airplane.
Methods:Three hundred and forty-three male and female university students (Mage = 20.17) were randomly assigned to one of five conditions. Subjects read one of several vignettes that varied the participants’ hypothetical proximity to the Ebola virus when boarding an airplane. Subjects were asked to imagine one of the following scenarios involving air travel: 1) their assigned seat was recently occupied by a passenger who had contracted the flu virus; 2) their seat was recently occupied by a passenger who had been exposed to Ebola but did not contract the virus; 3) their seat was recently occupied by a passenger who had been infected with Ebola but was asymptomatic; 4) their seat was recently occupied by a passenger who was infected with Ebola and symptomatic but whose seat area had been de-contaminated; 5) their assigned seat was recently occupied by a passenger who was infected with Ebola and symptomatic but whose seat area was not de-contaminated. All participants then reported their behavioral intentions to remain in their seat, change seats, or de-board the airplane. Participants also completed scales assessing perceived dread and the perceived likelihood of becoming infected after drinking from a glass that was disinfected but previously used by an Ebola patient.
Results:Behavioral intentions were correlated with the perceived ease of the Ebola virus spreading (r = 0.25, p< 0.01), the level of dread attached to becoming infected (r = 0.19, p< 0.01), and the perceived likelihood of contracting the virus by drinking from a glass that had been thoroughly disinfected but previously used by an Ebola patient (r = 0.24, p< 0.01). Approximately 4%, 21%, 27%, 35%, and 47% of the participants planned to de-board the plane under the following five conditions, respectively: the prior passenger… 1) was infected with the flu, 2) was exposed to Ebola but not infected, 3) was infected with Ebola but asymptomatic, 4) was infected and symptomatic but the seat area was de-contaminated, or 5) was infected, symptomatic, and seat area was not yet de-contaminated.
Conclusions:The findings suggest that a subset of adults overestimate the risk of Ebola contagion. Yet the findings also reveal a pattern of responding to levels of increasing threat that signals greater rationality in decision-making than frequently suggested.
Implications for research and/or practice:This study has implications for developing risk communications that target misinformation and distorted risk perceptions regarding the threat of contagious diseases.