Musings on Risk and Prevention, Courtesy of the Flu


Welcome back to Around My Mind after a brief hiatus courtesy of the 2019 cold and flu season! The one with the bad cough. You know what I’m talking about, as do way too many of my friends, not to mention millions and millions of other people around the world.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, I did get the flu shot last fall. And it’s sparked some thoughts about vaccines: ground zero for the decisions we make about taking risks and precautions –and all of the biases and mental tricks that go into those choices.

There are two kinds of people: the ones who would rail about the shot not working and decide not to get it again, and the ones who credit the flu shot with my flu not having been nearly as bad as it would have been otherwise.

As you might have guessed, I am in the latter group. Mine was mild enough that at first I thought it was just a cold because I didn’t have a fever. But then I felt well enough to stop popping cold meds and a fever appeared, likely having been there all the while but just suppressed.

I was also lucky that what I thought at the time was the caprice of malicious scheduling deities turned out to be a gift. While I was on a quick trip to New York, a client crisis, another flu strike, and a friend’s son’s skiing accident wiped out two meetings in a row then a dinner.

At first, I was irritated. But then I fell asleep at 7:30 pm, too tired for dinner, and didn’t wake up til 6 am. Apparently I really, really needed the rest, which was especially important ahead of a big talk, about which I’ll share more later.

That extra sleep probably was what pushed off the full onset until the following week, the first time I could afford to take the time off in more than three months. It has been a very busy time with two visits to NYC, one to Dallas, and two separate trips halfway around the globe to Singapore and China.

This might be an appropriate time to mention that overworking is my biggest risk struggle, seemingly never ending, no matter how good I tell myself I am getting at keeping things to a dull roar.

But what I really mean to talk about is vaccines and how we perceive and act on risks. When most of us make risk decisions, typically it’s not based on scientific probabilities but rather on emotions.

I’m going to give you some numbers anyway.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the flu shot ranged from 10 to 60 percent effectiveness from 2004 through 2017. By the CDC’s estimates, this year’s vaccine on average is about 47 percent effective for adults and 61 percent effective for children. That’s a pretty good match.

But roughly 40 percent of Americans still said they would not get vaccines this season, with 36 percent concerned with the side effects, 31 percent not convinced it would work, and 27 percent not worried that they would get very sick even if the flu did strike them.

When people think of their reasoning, however, they’re probably not taking into account the unconscious factors.

Did a friend have the flu, making the disease more emotionally resonant (kicking in the availability effect)? My great-grandfather died in the Great Flu Epidemic of 2018, so it’s personal with me.

Do you think of yourself as a rational person? Or do you not believe in numbers? Here, the backlash effect could come into play –as it does for many anti-vaxxers who dig their heels in harder the more they hear about scientific evidence.

How invincible do you think you are? Often the more overconfident you are, the lower the relationship of your opinion is with the facts.

I think of these questions because of my own recent experience with the flu, but they are just as relevant for the bigger debates going around diseases like the measles, which are on the upswing because so many people have chosen emotion over facts in making their risk choices.

Did you get a flu shot last fall? Will you get one next year? What went into your decision? Does being aware of the potential biases change your view? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

In the meantime, hydrate, stay rested, and keep those hands washed, whether you got the flu shot or not. And if it still didn’t work, here’s some virtual chicken soup and lemon-honey tea for you.

This article is part of my new weekly LinkedIn series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. 

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Michele Wucker

About Author

Michele Wucker is a global thought leader and the author, most recently, of THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore (St Martin's Press, 2016). Learn more about her at

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