Herpes and Global Warming

Herpes and Global Warming

What do they have in common? Well, they are both bad news. It turns out that some people pay to avoid hearing potentially bad news. There’s a point to be made from this research and the way we counter the looming clouds of climate change. Would you go to extraordinary lengths to diminish or ignore warning signs?

Originally shared by John Baez

The ostrich effect

Why do people think ostriches stick their heads under the sand when they’re scared?  A Roman named Pliny the Elder might be to blame.  He wrote that ostriches “imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”  

That would be silly – birds aren’t that dumb.  But people will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts.  It seems irrational to avoid information that can help us survive.  But people do it.  It’s called information aversion.

Here’s a new experiment:

In order to gauge how information aversion affects health care, one group of researchers decided to look at how college students react to being tested for a sexually transmitted disease.

That’s a subject a lot of students worry about, according to Josh Tasoff, an economist at Claremont Graduate University who led the study along with Ananda Ganguly, an associate professor of accounting at Claremont McKenna College.

The students were told they could get tested for the herpes simplex virus. It’s a common disease that spreads via contact. And it has two forms: HSV1 and HSV2.

The type 1 herpes virus produces cold sores. It’s unpleasant, but not as unpleasant as type 2, which targets the genitals. Ganguly says the college students were given information — graphic information — that made it clear which kind of HSV was worse.

“There were pictures of male and female genitalia with HSV2, guaranteed to kind of make them really not want to have the disease,” Ganguly says.

Once the students understood what herpes does, they were told a blood test could find out if they had either form of the virus.

Now, in previous studies on information aversion it wasn’t always clear why people declined information. So Tasoff and Ganguly designed the experiment to eliminate every extraneous reason someone might decline to get information.

First, they wanted to make sure that students weren’t declining the test because they didn’t want to have their blood drawn. Ganguly came up with a way to fix that: All of the students would have to get their blood drawn. If a student chose not to get tested, “we would draw 10 cc of their blood and in front of them have them pour it down the sink,” Ganguly says.

The researchers also assured the students that if they elected to get the blood tested for HSV1 and HSV2, they would receive the results confidentially.

And to make triply sure that volunteers who said they didn’t want the test were declining it to avoid the information, the researchers added one final catch. Those who didn’t want to know if they had a sexually transmitted disease had to pay $10 to not have their blood tested.

So what did the students choose? Quite a few declined a test.

And while only 5 percent avoided the HSV1 test, three times as many avoided testing for the nastier form of herpes.

For those who didn’t want to know, the most common explanation was that they felt the results might cause them unnecessary stress or anxiety.

Let’s try extrapolating from this.  Global warming is pretty scary.  What would people do to avoid learning more about it?  You can’t exactly pay scientists to not tell you about it.  But you can do lots of other things: not listen to them, pay people to contradict what they’re saying, and so on.  And guess what?  People do all these things.

So, don’t expect that scaring people about global warming will make them take action.  If a problem seems scary and hard to solve, many people will just avoid thinking about it.

Maybe a better approach is to tell people things they can do about global warming.  Even if these things aren’t big enough to solve the problem, they can keep people engaged.

There’s a tricky issue here.  I don’t want people to think turning off the lights when they leave the room is enough to stop global warming.  That’s a dangerous form of complacency.  But it’s even worse if they decide global warming is such a big problem that there’s no point in doing anything about it.  

The quote is from here:

• Shankar Vedantham, Why we think ignorance Is bliss, even when It hurts our health, http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/07/28/333945706/why-we-think-ignorance-is-bliss-even-when-it-hurts-our-health.

Here’s the actual study:

• Ananda Ganguly and Joshua Tasoff, Fantasy and dread: the demand for information and the consumption utility of the future, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2370983.

The photo, probably fake, is from here:

http://www.ostrichheadinsand.com/

Join the Conversation

13 Comments


  1. I’m ready to move if some part of the world becomes more hospitable than where I am.  That’s all that’s happening. It’s been happening ever since the world began but just in the last 20 years or so, it’s become politically and economically convenient to focus on it.  People are making a lot of money and a lot of grasps for power over this.

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  2. John Enfield And maybe, just maybe, having 7 billion people on the planet churning out 14,000,000,000 tons of CO2 a year is going to make the place less habitable and the places that you and two or three billion others might want to move to will put up barriers to stop you doing so.  Just a thought…

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