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Hazard avoidance, symbolic and practical: the case of Americans’ reported responses to Ebola


Reducing potential dangers by changing routine behavior to avoid certain people, places, or technologies can be prudent, but reporting avoidance also can be symbolic. This study probed Americans’ reactions to Ebola from December 2014 to May 2015 with a longitudinal study (final n = 625), plus a representative sample in May: How much did they claim to avoid West Africans, commercial flights, Ebola-associated cities, and four other targets? What factors affected self-reported avoidance? Did people with opportunities to implement avoidance report more (e.g. frequent flyers can change their routine behavior more to avoid commercial flights than can infrequent flyers)? The December 2014 survey found most people never considered avoidance, but substantial minorities claimed acting or intending to avoid each target; substantial majorities of May 2015 respondents reported avoidance intentions if a new Ebola outbreak occurred in Africa or the United States. Perceptions of personal risk, concern about infection, and following Ebola news were primary factors in reported avoidance, with temporal reversals (e.g. news following increased avoidance in December but decreased it in May). Opportunity enhanced reported avoidance in December 2014 by indirect effects through personal risk, concern, and news following, but decreased avoidance intentions in May 2015 through direct effects of opportunity on avoidance. Temporal shifts in avoidance reports and associations seem consistent with objective declines in Ebola cases, perhaps mediated by changes in news coverage. Further consideration of avoidance behavior and the role of opportunity could enhance hazard management.

Keywords: Ebola, avoidance behavior, opportunity, stigma


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