The Cost of Worrying About an Epidemic: Ebola Concern and Cognitive Function in the US

TitleThe Cost of Worrying About an Epidemic: Ebola Concern and Cognitive Function in the US
Publication TypeReport
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsApenbrink, C
Series TitleECONtribute Discussion Paper
Document Number120
Keywordscognitive function, Ebola, Emotions, Epidemics, Fear, Worry

Do emotional responses to the spread of an infectious disease affect the quality of economic
decision-making? In the context of an episode of heightened public concern about Ebola in the
US in October 2014, I document that worrying about the possibility of an epidemic can impair
cognitive function. My analysis relies on data from cognitive tests administered as part of a wave
of survey interviews by a large US panel study, which I combine with measures of local concern
about Ebola based on internet search volume. For identification, I exploit temporal and spatial
variation in Ebola concern caused by the emergence of four cases of Ebola that were diagnosed in
the US. Using proximity to the US cases as an instrumental variable, I show that the local level of
Ebola concern individuals are exposed to at the time and place of the interview reduces their scores
on the cognitive test. In additional analyses, I find no indication of fear-induced selection effects
that could plausibly explain these results. Moreover, proximity to subsequent Ebola locations is
unrelated to test scores for interviews conducted before the emergence of the first US case. My
findings indicate that emotional responses to epidemics can entail a temporary cognitive cost even
for individuals for whom the actual health risk never materializes.

Citation Key11914