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Ripped from the headlines: Availability heuristic and viruses

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If you are about to cover or have recently covered the availability heuristic in Intro Psych, ask your students this question.

Which are you more concerned about: the coronavirus or the flu virus?


How concerned are you about the coronavirus? (1 not at all concerned to 7 very concerned)

How concerned are you about the flu virus? (1 not at all concerned to 7 very concerned)

Here are the statistics.


As of Monday, February 3, 2020, CBS News reports that “there were more than 20,000 confirmed cases [of coronavirus infection] in more than two dozen countries, the vast majority of them in China, according to the World Health Organization. There have been at least 425 deaths in China, and one in the Philippines.”

Flu virus

In contrast, in the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports as of January 25, 2020 that 19 million to 26 million people have contracted the flu resulting in 180,000 to 310,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 to 25,000 deaths.

This year isn’t so bad. The CDC estimates that the flu virus killed 61,000 people during the 2017-2018 flu season, again, just in the United States.

If your students are using the availability heuristic here, they are much more likely to be concerned about the coronavirus than the flu virus. The coverage of the coronavirus in mass media and social media is, well, substantial. The coverage of the flu virus is almost nil.

This is an excellent opportunity to talk with students about how the information we take in can influence how we see the world, a perception that can cause us to put our fears in the wrong place.

Ask students to take a few minutes to generate some strategies for increasing their own awareness of when they may be under the influence of the availability heuristic as well as some strategies for countering it. It may be as simple as realizing that we’re feeling frightened and saying, “Wait. Do I have reason to be frightened? Let me do some research into this.”

Of course, this does not mean that your students should be freaked out by the flu instead. Encourage your students to do some research on who is most at risk for dying from the flu. For those who aren’t at risk from dying from the flu, getting the flu vaccine can help prevent them from passing the flu on to someone else who is at risk from dying from it.

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About the Author
At Highline College near Seattle, Sue Frantz is working on her third decade in the psychology college classroom. Throughout her career, she has been an early adopter of new technologies in which she saw pedagogical potential. In 2009, she founded her blog, Technology for Academics. The blog features both new tech tools and tips for using not-so-new tools effectively. She currently serves as Vice President for Resources for APA Division 2: Society for the Teaching of Psychology. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. In 2016, she received the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. As the newest contributor to the Instructor Resource Manual for the David Myers and Nathan DeWall Introduction to Psychology textbooks, she is excited to bring teaching resources to you in this venue.