A deadly influenza virus comes from Asia to our shores. There is no cure, and doctors estimate that a person’s chance of dying a horrible and painful death from the virus is 10 percent. A vaccine is available, made from a weakened form of the virus. The vaccine cures most people, but kills 5 percent of them.
Clearly it is better to take the vaccine. A 5 percent chance of dying, however awful, is not as bad as a 10 percent chance of dying. Yet not everyone, when surveyed, wants to take the vaccine. Many people are more afraid of the risk they choose than the risk that might befall them.
A poll, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, indicated that only 48 percent of the responders said they would take the
vaccine. The rest were too afraid of the danger they might bring upon themselves. True, this was only a questionnaire and perhaps many of these people would be more rational if they were on the verge of possible death or viral infection. But the mere fact that their intuitions led them away from the vaccine, in the questionnaire setting, shows that human beings do not approach these problems rationally.
Those same people were more likely to recommend the vaccine for others. They were especially likely to recommend the vaccine for people distant from themselves, such as strangers. Fifty-seven percent of the responders said they would give the vaccine to their children. Sixty-three percent said that, if they were doctors, they would give it to their patients. Seventy-three percent said that if they were directors of a hospital, they would give the vaccine to all of their patients.
What can be sad about our branch of the family Hominidae is not that we are so often afraid, but what we are afraid of!