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
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. 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. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.