H1N1 and Irrationality

by Mr. Cheap

pigI’ve been amazed at people’s reaction to H1N1 for a number of reasons.  I was *SHOCKED* that they were able to get the name changed from “Swine Flu” to H1N1 (people involved with the pork industry started oinking immediately after the pandemic started and amazingly managed to get it renamed).  I still like to call it “the pig flu”.

I’ve also been amazed at the crazy reaction people have been having, trying to avoid contact with other people and lining up for hours to try to get vaccinated (and coming close to rioting when they’ve run out of vaccine).  Pandemic is a scary word, but I’m going to go on record saying that we’ll look back at H1N1 and say (much like Y2K or SARS) “what did we get so worked up about?”

Please check out Mike’s post – Should I get H1N1 Vaccine for my kids?

As of Oct 26th, 86 Canadians have died.  This is sad.  Since the flu debuted in April, let’s call this 13 people / month or 0.41 Canadians a day.  The average Canadian has a (0.41 / 33,212,696 [Canadian population]) = 0.00000123%) chance of dying from the pig flu.  Another way of expressing this is you have a 1 in 81,006,575 chance of dying from the pig flu EVERY DAY!!!

Given that Americans have a 1 : 280,000 ANNUAL chance of being struck by lightening (for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume comparable odds for Canucks),this would give us a 1 : 102,270,000 (280,000 * 365.25) daily chance of being struck by lightening (slightly less likely than dying from catching the pig flu).  How many precautions are you taking to avoid that?

In 2005, 2,860 “road users” died.  At 7.83 / day, this gives us 19.1 TIMES the chance of dying on a road (in a car, as a pedestrian or as a cyclist) than from H1N1.  This actually UNDERSTATES the comparison, because we considered all Canadians with the flu, but only “road users” are at risk of dying on the road.  Remember also, this is just fatalities, we’re ignoring non-fatal injuries.

To switch it around and consider a happier thought, the chance of winning the Lotto 649 is 1/13,983,816 = 0.000007151%, or more than double your daily chance of dying from the swing flu, EVERY TIME YOU PLAY!!!  Should we all run out and buy tickets?

Of the hordes stampeding to get vaccinated, how many are avoiding roads?  If we consider the risk of death associated with road use to be reasonable (which, clearly, most of us do), how can we be panicking over something that is far less likely to affect us?

Some may say “well, yes, but there’s a CHANCE it’ll kill me, so isn’t it worth taking some small precautions to avoid it?”.  Yes, sure, but remember there are INFINITE ways to die.  Some of the actions you’d take to avoid some, will INCREASE your chance of others (say you become a shut-in to avoid the dangers outside your home, you’ve now increased your exposure to all the ways you can die at home).  If you can easily get vaccinated and it’ll reduce your stress level, knock yourself out.  Just to pump up the stress back up a little, think about all the things that are more likely to kill you that you haven’t even thought of!

What does this mean for a personal finance blog?

First of all, behaving rationally is worthwhile in life, but it’s VITAL in investing.  Getting caught up in the madness of crowds is what leads to dot-com (or tulip) bubbles.  Just by identifying the craziness as craziness (and getting off of the ride), you can improve your returns MASSIVELY.

Secondly, I’m not sure what they are but I think there must be some killer deals to be had based on the public’s over-reaction to this.  Perhaps now is the time to book a flight and travel on the cheap?  Maybe some stocks are beaten down with investors expecting the next black plague.

How worried are you about H1N1?  Can you think of any investments that would pay off if H1N1 turns out not to be a big deal?

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