Texas Tech University

Study: Generalizing Disease Knowledge Can Help Combat Zoonosis Risks

Glenys Young

November 8, 2017


These findings could help public health organizations craft more effective messages.

If you were bitten by a bird, would you be concerned about getting sick? How likely would you be to seek medical attention? As it turns out, those answers may depend on your knowledge of other animals' susceptibility to disease.

In psychology, it's called inductive reasoning – that's the process of generalizing information to novel scenarios. And according to a new study from the Texas Tech University Department of Psychological Sciences, inductive reasoning can play a big role in how people perceive the risks involved with animals and infectious diseases.

Tyler Davis
Tyler Davis

Texas Tech assistant professors Tyler Davis, Molly Ireland and Jason Van Allen collaborated with Micah Goldwater from the University of Sydney and independent research consultant Nicholas Gaylord. Their paper, "Can you catch Ebola from a stork bite? Inductive reasoning influences generalization of perceived zoonosis risk,” appears today (Nov. 8) in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science.

The idea behind inductive reasoning is simple. Suppose you are bitten by an animal – maybe a bird, maybe a bat or maybe a dog. If you know that other similar animals are susceptible to communicable diseases, such as Ebola or rabies, you are likely to be more concerned about the possibility of getting infected by the bite. This happens because you generalize your knowledge from other animals to the one that bit you, even though that may not be entirely accurate.

Molly Ireland
Molly Ireland

"We've been interested for a while in how everyday people reason about risks associated with animal contact,” said Davis, the study's lead author. "An overwhelming number of new emerging diseases come from animal sources and get introduced to the human population as a result of animal contact. Thus, everyday people without expertise in infectious diseases or how to interact with animals are at the frontlines of potential future pandemics, yet very little is known about how they reason about the risks of animal contact.”

While a person may not know much about the risks posed by a specific animal, they likely have beliefs about which animals in general may be susceptible to disease. Davis highlighted that this study tested whether people use knowledge about the range of animals that are susceptible to a disease when judging their own risks of contact with a specific type of animal. The researchers measured this in a variety of ways, including the likelihood of reporting animal bites to a health professional and the perceived safety of eating different animals' meat.

Jason Van Allen
Jason Van Allen

The study found that risk perception increases in two different scenarios. First, if the animal you encountered is similar to a type of animal you believe may carry a disease – for instance, encountering a coyote when you know that local foxes can carry a disease – you may perceive a greater risk to your own health. Second, if you know that a particular disease is found in a wide variety of animals, you may perceive a greater likelihood that the animal you encountered could carry it – for example, if bats, cats and birds all carry a disease, then the coyote you encountered may well pose a risk, as well.

"Although there has been a lot of research on inductive reasoning, this research has not been widely applied to health behaviors in general and perception of disease risk from animals in particular,” Davis said. "Thus, we were excited to see that these basic cognitive principles may be harnessed to improve health behaviors and potentially reduce threats from emerging infectious diseases.

"This was applied research, so it can be used immediately to craft better public health messages that appropriately convey risks to lay people. Specifically, this work can help public health organizations develop communications to better inform people about what risks are – and are not – posed by their surrounding environment. We're also very hopeful that this work can inform better public health messaging in the developing world, where awareness of risks can be very low and responses to outbreaks are often slow and costly.”

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