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What are the Chances: Of a Swine Infestation? Part 2

The second reason the world reacted with extreme measures is that our sense of judgement was significantly altered by irrelevant and unrelated information that has absolutely no bearing on the decision at hand. A ‘context’ heuristic.

If I was to ask you a question that you didn’t know, like “how many quokka’s live on Rottnest Island?”, then you’d have to guess.

I could significantly influence your answer by mentioning an unrelated figure before I ask the question. If I were, for instance, to say to one group of test subjects, “there are 700,000 more people alive today than there were yesterday”, and another group of test subjects, “BHP has a market capitalisation of $50 billion,” and then ask the quokka question, there answers would be different.

The group subject to the higher meaningless figure will give a significantly higher estimate for quokka’s than the first group. Why? Because unconsciously our brain uses that figure as part of the estimation process – even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the issue at hand.

This bias can have a significant impact on meaningful things. Studies have found that customers will spend more at a café called ‘Café 190’ than they will at one called ‘Café 19.’ Even though it is the same café with only the name changed!

It certainly has had an influence in the “Great Swine Flu Panic of 09″.

When the new virulent strain of influenza influenced the World Health Organisation to raise the world alert to the disease, it was ‘put into context’ by discussing the Spanish Influenza outbreak that followed World War One. This pandemic has been estimated to have killed over 70 million people.

My work is done!

I’ve already influenced how risky the Swine Flu is. I’ve given you the ‘context’ in which to evaluate it. You cannot escape it.

You might reason, rightly, that we have made great strides in medicine since the 1920’s. You would be right. Our collective body of knowledge has gone from not even knowing what a virus is to, probably very soon, being able to map the genetic code of one. While you might counter reason that the world is far more integrated now, with great strides having been made in transportation, the reality is communications technology has come even further. So health organisations can respond even faster.

Irrespective of whether you give greater preference to the ‘preventative’ or the ‘contributing’ factors, I’ve established the context that a pandemic will kill 70 million people. You will either estimate a higher or lower figure, but it will be based around 70 million.

That alone is justification enough to panic!

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