The Normalcy Bias

The Normalcy Bias

Normalcy bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to believe that everything will continue to be 'normal' even though there are warning signs to the contrary. As a result, we ignore or downplay the likelihood of danger and the possible consequences. It is the line with thinking that nothing terrible will ever happen. When we panic, we rush our decisions and make mistakes. Negative panic is the opposite, it freezes us and makes us do absolutely nothing. In each and every disaster there’s a period of time when the normalcy bias comes into play. Here are some examples:

  • Hurricanes are usually predicted events. When there is an evacuation warning, many people refuse to leave or only do it when the weather is getting very bad. Thousands of people refused to leave New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached.
  • The experts at the Fukushima nuclear power plant were convinced that a multiple reactor meltdown would never happen.
  • During many active shooter events, people heard gunshots and chose to think that it was something other than what it was. These failures in judgment can make the difference between life and death.
  • Most recently, you see it in people evacuating from Ukraine. The are very slow to react. Even when the tanks are a couple of miles from the city, they say that they will be fine. Frightening!

Not everyone is prone to the normalcy bias. During emergencies, some people panic, while others do nothing and wait for help. Still others stay cool and take decisive action. Statistics indicates that about 70% of people will display the normalcy bias during a disaster. Normalcy bias is “one of the most dangerous biases we have”. It is possible to avoid or overcome this bias. Cognitive biases are mistakes in reasoning and judgment. We are rationalizing creatures. It means that our brain selects information that will cause us come to the wrong conclusions so that we feel good for the moment. Dangerous situations are very stressful. Our rational mind do not react well to stress and breaks down. When we are in jeopardy, we need to react quickly. Typically, there’s no time for a thorough analysis, comparisons, and search for logical answers. The brain has many different mechanisms that affect your actions and the normalcy bias is one of them. When you are overwhelmed with stress and not able to think of an instant and acceptable solution, our brain focuses on a single, usually ‘normal’ solution, as if nothing was happening. Some people who stay calm, rational, and decisive in a crisis are proof that it can be overcome. But, most of us will accept our brain’s deception and take comfort in the normalcy bias. We need to discover a process to overcome this very dangerous trick our mind plays. The answer sounds trite, it’s a matter of awareness and training. As with most behavioral changes, it begins with that “aha” moment. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” This is why we do fire drills in schools and active shooter training, it’s all to practice behavior. These are attempts to teach us to react differently when faced with emergency situations. 

  1. Recognize the unpredictable and dangerous possibilities.
  2. Don’t rely on or wait for someone else to save you.
  3. Make plans, write them down, and practice them.
  4. Preparing yourself mentally and try to stay calm when an emergency happens.
  5. Don’t ignore that the worst-case scenario may happen.
  6. React faster than you instinctively feel you should.
  7. Learn Situational awareness (SA) and know what is going on around you.
We can learn to avoid or overcome the normalcy bias. Regular prepping activities such as storing food and water, making kits, and developing plans are helpful when faced with a disaster and avoiding the normalcy bias. The more prepared you are, the easier it is for your mind to act rationally rather than rationalize or ignore the obvious warning signs.

1 comment

A good read!


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