Behavioral economist (and 2009 President of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making) Dan Ariely appeared on NPR’s Marketplace to discuss reasons for the swine flu panic. Read or listen to the interview here.
He focuses on the difference between the value of an identified life and a statistical life, as well as the impact of uncontrollability on risk perception (part of the constellation of factors Paul Slovic has referred to as being associated with “dread risk”).
The availability heuristic is also relevant here – there is very little reporting of deaths associated with seasonal flu and a lot of reporting about potential new strains. This leads to an underestimate of the risk of seasonal flu, even in the young and elderly.