Ebola and Cognitive Bias

By Michele Goodwin

In the wake of another health care worker contracting Ebola, alarm bells are ringing. Last week, President Obama abruptly cancelled a campaign stop to Rhode Island to hold press conferences where he promised that federal authorities are “taking this very seriously at the highest levels of government.” Despite Obama’s assurances that the dangers associated with the disease spreading in the US are extremely low, other political camps are less convinced. Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, urged officials to close US borders to countries experiencing Ebola outbreaks, basically quarantining West Africa from travel to the United States.

In light of the hysteria surrounding Ebola and not Enterovirus, it’s worth thinking about our national response. Enterovirus has already claimed more lives in the US than Ebola. Think about this, the CDC warns that enteroviruses are highly contagious and already more than 500 patients have been diagnosed across 43 states in the past couple months. Yet, there has been no national outcry or demands to quarantine states, cities, local communities, or hospitals where patients were treated. Why?

Unlike the enterovirus, the face of Ebola is decidedly immigrant or “outsider.” It’s origins are Africa.  Could these factors have contributed to Thomas Eric Duncan’s initial treatment at a Texas hospital and the inaccurate media accounts shortly following his diagnosis? Studies show how cognitive or implicit biases may have much to do with how we treat patients.  Continue reading