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The List - One year, hundreds of stories. 2014-15 Progress Report.

Measuring the fear of Ebola

University at Buffalo researcher Janet Yang is studying the public perception of Ebola and how to improve communication about the virus.

UB researcher uses NSF grant to assess America’s perception of Ebola and improve communication about the virus

Release Date: November 24, 2014

Janet Yang, assistant professor, Department of Communication

“The findings may improve the design of messages related to risk issues that are perceived to be psychologically distant from the American public.”
Janet Yang, assistant professor,
Department of Communication

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Although much of the panic surrounding Ebola has quelled, a recent Gallup poll found that Ebola is among American’s top three health concerns, provoking more fear than cancer and obesity.

It is fear that can be attributed to the virus breaching U.S. soil, says Janet Yang, assistant professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Communication.

In a new study, supported by an $84,110 Rapid Response Research grant from the National Science Foundation, Yang will survey how the public’s view on Ebola is influenced by their emotional and cognitive responses to the outbreak.

She will also examine how people share and receive medical information, and gauge how willing they are to support government initiatives to fight the virus.

While the fear of contracting an illness can drive people to receive routine tests or eat healthily, it can also lead to irrational behavior and the spread of misinformation.

“One of the reasons people are paying attention to the outbreak is because of how close and frightening it appears,” says Yang.

“The public’s perception of risk comes from a reduction in psychological distance. When we didn’t have any confirmed cases, people were less concerned that they themselves would be affected.”

Yang's study will examine data from 1,000 participants sampled through a survey. Subjects were randomly assigned to two experimental conditions: one that emphasized there are people infected with Ebola in the U.S., and another that stressed the opposite.

Yang will draw conclusions from the data using theory from social psychology and risk communication.

“The findings may improve the design of messages related to risk issues that are perceived to be psychologically distant from the American public — issues such as climate change and overpopulation,” says Yang.

The data may also inform public policy on risk-related issues, promote an appropriate public response and prevent panic grounded in misinformation, adds Yang.

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