Send in the shrinks to end MERS scareEvery year, 30,000 Koreans die from smoking-related causes. But no one would break out in a cold sweat from looking at cigarettes. Automobiles can be deadly. Last year, 4,762 people were killed in car accidents and more than 330,000 were injured. Nevertheless, we ride buses, take taxis and drive cars without worrying about the potential danger.
How about MERS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, stirring up the entire country? Of course, it is a deadly virus. However, since the first case was reported, many times more people have died from car accidents than MERS, but society is not in a panic over automobiles.
Why do we remain so calm about far more deadly activities, yet react so sensitively to a contagious disease from another region? According to evolutionary psychology theories, people tend to be more afraid of environmental risks. For example, contemporary people have an instinctive fear of snakes and spiders, as our ancestors had been threatened by snakes and spiders for millions of years while hunting and gathering. In contrast, automobiles and cigarettes are relatively new risk factors, and there has not been sufficient time for fear of them to evolve.
Therefore, we feel fear just from looking at a picture of a snake, but are insensitive to automobiles, which, in fact, pose a far more substantial threat to our health and safety.
The same psychology applies to contagious diseases. In the course of human evolution, people’s immune systems developed differently according to the viruses and bacteria active in different regions. So germs that are common in one region could be fatal when they spread to another region. Tens of millions people died from smallpox spread by Europeans to the Aztecs in Mexico and other American Indian civilizations.
So our ancestors have developed the psychology of being extremely cautious about entities and objects that may transmit diseases. Thanks to medical advancements, the likelihood of catastrophe from viral outbreaks is very small in modern society. Also, we are well aware that there are many more dangerous factors around us than contagious diseases.
But once an outbreak happens, the fear of contagious disease inscribed deep in our brains kicks in, overwhelming our feeble reasoning. Ironically, some people drive out to Gangwon province to get away from MERS, when driving poses a far greater danger than the virus. In order to overcome the MERS scare, we need psychologists more than medical doctors.
The author is a deputy political and international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 12, Page 31
by KIM JUNG-HA