Let’s consider the fear of bed bugs.
Here is the transcript of a conversation between host Ira Flatow, Psychologist Dr. Kevin Ochsner (of Columbia University), and producer Flora Lichtman about psychological reactions to bed bugs, which aired in the Science Friday segment on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week.
I first want to direct you to Flora’s Video of the Week (mentioned in the segment): “Psychological Reappraisal of Bedbugs.” The idea behind “reappraisal,” to be discussed more in a moment, is that our fears of bed bugs are irrational, and that we need to think differently about them. (I know, but please bear with me.)
The video is embedded below, or viewable here.
You can read or listen to the discussion itself on NPR’s site.
Science Friday Host Ira Flatow says of the video:
“Maybe you won’t look or feel about bedbugs the same way after you see this video.”
Hmmm. I think it would be much more fun if I did not know what bed bugs were really like.
While certainly as far-fetched, at least this Isabella Rossellini fiasco (which The Daily Show had some fun with recently) acknowledges the sheer unpleasantness of having bed bugs living in your home and feeding on you while you sleep.
I was even less taken with Science Friday’s discussion around bedbug “hysteria.”
Dr. Kevin Ochsner thinks that bed bugs are simply “a manageable pest” which is “annoying, but certainly not something worth being really afraid of.”
Ochsner seems to think that people have a fear of bed bugs which is out of proportion to the threat. We may think they’re like “land piranhas,” or in our minds, they’re enormous like Rossellini’s bed bugs.
However, those aren’t the fears of people who know about bed bugs. Or of people who’ve experienced them.
As for their manageability, while you can certainly get rid of bed bugs, many people are forced to live with them for longer than they should because they are not getting proper treatment, and can’t afford to move.
Still others sink serious amounts of money, time and energy into fighting them. And for many, it’s a very real source of anxiety, stress, and physical discomfort.
And they don’t suggest sufferers simply learn to “reappraise” bed bugs (i.e. think about them in a new way), as Ochsner suggests we should.
I agree that the recent media frenzy has too often had a hysterical tone.
However, while the general public may be “hysterical” about the idea of bed bugs, the reality of bed bugs is a serious problem for far too many people. Had Ochsner, Lichtman, and Flatow spoken with entomologists, or with people who have actually had bed bugs, they might be reappraising their own ideas about bed bugs.
The seriousness of the bed bug epidemic, and the difficulty in eradicating a bed bug infestation is explored more intelligently in the Science section of Monday’s New York Times, in this article focusing on bed bug research.
This article offers a kind of response to the Science Friday crew. Of the “manageability” of this pest, Donald G. McNeil, Jr. writes,
Whatever the source [of the current epidemic], the future is grim, experts agreed.
Many pesticides don’t work, and some that do are banned — though whether people should fear the bug or the bug-killer more is open to debate.
“I’d like to take some of these groups and lock them in an apartment building full of bugs and see what they say then,” [Dr. Michael Potter] said of environmentalists.
Treatment, including dismantling furniture and ripping up rugs, is expensive. Rather than actively hunting for bugs, hotels and landlords often deny having them.
Details in the article emphasize how cautious researchers are to avoid bringing bed bugs home, and how some, including Dr. Stephen Kells (of the University of Minnesota) and Dr. Coby Schal (of North Carolina State University), have developed artificial means of feeding their own bed bug colonies, due to perceived risks of letting the bugs bite them regularly.
Although it takes us a bit off-topic, another not-to-be-missed point in the NY Times story is the section addressing the theory that bed bugs came from “overseas”:
Experts say they’ve heard blame pinned on many foreign ethnic groups and on historic events from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Persian Gulf war to the spread of mosquito nets in Africa. Every theory has holes, and many are simply racist.
(For example, Dr. Potter said, he has heard Mexicans blamed, but Mexican pest control companies he contacted said they rarely see the bugs except in the homes of people returning from the United States, often with scavenged furniture.)
The story that bed bugs came to the US from other countries with immigrants and travelers doesn’t make a lot of sense once you talk to people from the countries mentioned, and find out bed bugs are also “reappearing” there too, after being largely unheard of.
Perhaps Dr. Schal’s research in mapping global variations in bed bug genes will soon shine some light.
I know you’ll want to read the rest of the New York Times story here.