One morning in 1934, panicked passengers jumped from the deck of the SS Morro Castle as it sank just off the coast of New Jersey. The ocean liner had caught fire, and the passengers had rushed to grab personal flotation devices. But some improperly wrapped the life preservers around their necks. As they fell and hit the water, the torque snapped their spines.
Personal flotation devices save exponentially more lives than they cost. Of the catastrophic boating accidents that occur daily, 84 percent of people who drown were not wearing one. But etch the details of this horrific wreck scene into one’s mind, and a person might become a life-preserver skeptic. Our basic tendency toward short-term thinking means we judge risk based on whatever is in front of us. We draw anxiety disproportionately from wherever we happen to be focusing our attention.
The same psychology applies throughout public health. At the moment, much attention in the U.S. is being paid to vaccines—rather than the diseases they prevent. This week, the actor Jessica Biel drew fiery eyes for lobbying legislators in California to kill a bill that would standardize the process of exempting children from required vaccinations. Biel, perhaps best known for her leading role in 2006’s The Illusionist, expressed concern for the well-being of a friend’s child. She has responded to accusations of being “anti-vax” by contending in an Instagram post that she “believes in vaccinations,” but wants to protect personal freedom: “I believe in giving doctors and the families they treat the ability to decide what’s best for their patients.”