Opinion

Normalcy Bias. Will You Underestimate the next Disaster?

demonstration

If you have ever watched a crisis unfold, in person, or perhaps some recorded footage, you have probably noticed a few people involved in the proceedings acting very nonplussed about the whole affair, even if they are moments or millimeters from death. You ever wonder why? Do they have ice water in their veins? Do they just not care, or do they not comprehend the severity of the situation, plain stupid?

The answer is not as easy as all that, but there is a commonly occurring phenomenon, really a state of mind, that affects a great many people in ways big and small. It’s called normalcy bias, and chances are it affects you in ways you might not even realize. In its mildest incarnation, it will slow down your decision making processes when all signs point to trouble. At its worst, it will strike in a rapidly emerging, dangerous situation and give you a bad case of brain-lock, that same look you see on the faces of those poor bystanders that stand around when the truck is veering off the road, or the mugger is about to shank them with a knife.

The good news is, you can dampen, even eliminate it to a degree. One of the most important elements in combating normalcy bias is understanding its effects on your psyche, and the fact that you are likely already affected by it. Once you know how it clouds your judgment, you might be able to slip the reins it tries to throttle your brain with, and act more shrewdly and quickly when the chips are down.

I Don’t Have Normalcy Bias! Everything is Fine!

Aha! You do have normalcy bias, I knew it! Stay back, before we all catch it! Ok, I’m kidding about that last part; it isn’t a germ you can catch from someone. All glibness aside, normalcy bias is pretty easy to understand. Normalcy bias is simply defined as a pattern of thinking that actively causes people to underestimate, even ignore, what they are confronted with. Put another way, it is the promise that little voice in your head makes when it tells you everything will turn out just like it always has: A-OK.

Normalcy bias can strike in major, cataclysmic events, or little everyday ones. Big or small, the typical outcome is that it sloooows down your decision making, and often constricts your thinking to an oft-repeated outcome, i.e. nothing is wrong, everything will be fine.

This might manifest as a lack of action in a crisis, like rendering aid, getting out of the way of something that can kill you, or going on the offense against an imminent threat from someone or something intending to hurt you. It might manifest as lackluster or half-hearted preparation for likely or impending disasters, risks or threats. In other words, it isn’t just “freezing” or whistling a tune while death closes in.

Elements and Progression

In order to react effectively to something, we have to take in information, process it, weigh our options or formulate an option, then decide, then act on our decision. Often this process happens extremely quickly when our brains have encountered this precise scenario countless times before, rehearsed it, executed against it and met with a favorable or at least not disastrous outcome. Decision making suffers when new or unexpected elements are added to the equation, perhaps by getting slower or choosing non-optimal solutions.

Things get really dicey when confronted with a situation so enormous, dangerous, out of the ordinary or shocking that our brains stress out and go blue screen like your PC does when it crashes. In essence, this is normalcy bias at its worst: your brain either outright refuses to make a decision that will preserve your life and limb, or instead actually rejects the situation entirely, conjuring a mundane and less severe explanation for what is being perceived.

I know what you are thinking, “Charles, I am a seasoned, hardened prepper! I know danger when I see it, and heck, I practically have to stop myself from wishing for one just so I can test myself!” Fair enough, but the flaw in your plan is that you might not catch normalcy bias in time before it screws you.

Normalcy bias may be the voice that assures you the operator of the heavy equipment speeding toward your squishy, crunchy body can see you. It nudges you and reminds you that the other weather station said the Category 5 hurricane that is about to wipe out half your state is expected to weaken, and besides, 15 years with no major hurricane means this one is no different.

It will stall you, gluing you to the news reports or some other meaningless task before you choose to grab your pack and evacuate. It chides you for jocking up when that scruffy dude with the darting glances turns and walks briskly toward you. He probably is just going to ask you for your change.

In sudden events, this delay in accepting what is happening will be enough to get you hurt or killed. In ones where you have more warning, it may cause you to get overtaken by something that could have been easily avoided had you acted on the information you had earlier. It is this delay in reaching your decision making phase that is so dangerous.

This bias, bugthought, glitch, whatever you want to call it can even strike in situations where the world is actively falling apart around you. Normalcy bias keeps people blithely cooped up in their homes during disasters as severe as erupting volcanoes and approaching war. That sounds crazy, lunatic, unbelievable, but I assure you this phenomenon is true, well-understood and widespread. What is not well understood, however, is just how great a toll in life and society it costs.

Confronting and Avoiding Normalcy Bias

Normalcy Bias is the bastard son of Complacency, and its brother is Bystander Syndrome. Most of us are familiar with both of those. Complacency will lull you into doing things in a way you know they should not be done, but you do it anyway; it is laziness. The Bystander Effect engages when you are standing around watching some crisis unfold and you and all the other gawkers do nothing because you erroneously believe someone else is going to spring into action any second, or that it isn’t your responsibility.

One of the foundational techniques to confound normalcy bias is good, realistic training. Our brains don’t kick into warp speed when confronted with a problem manifesting just as fast. If you have to think at that speed, you’re toast. But your brain can pull up a solution for just that problem with blinding quickness in response to a stimulus if it has had opportunity to rehearse it a few times. That is where training comes in. Any of you readers that have trained in anything- firearms, martial arts, performance driving, emergency medicine- and encountered a situation where that training kicked in immediately and it you could not honestly recall making the decision to act know what I am talking about.

Training in essence gives your brain both the preview and the shortcut to the “correct” solution to a given problem, allowing it to bypass that too-slow deliberation you can ill-afford in a live or die situation. Training provides knowledge and experience, both good inoculations against the stresses of an intense situation, stresses that cloud or halt your mind.

You must also start cultivating the habit of acting deliberately on the information you have right now. You can wait, observe, wait, observe, wait and observe a situation to death. Literally, your death. Rehearse, visualize and really plan for common scenarios. Envision yourself successfully acting with speed and precision to a variety of scenarios, applying the appropriate response.

Don’t underestimate the potential of these mental techniques! In the event of a rapidly occurring threat, your response must be pre-programmed and explosive in implementation. For ones that might escalate, or emerge with warning, you will have a jumping off point, a line in the sand: “when ‘x’ occurs, I do this.” No exceptions, no more deliberation, act.

Considering Social and Family Pressures to Conform

People fear “jumping the gun” for a host of reasons, but social ones are certainly a factor; we won’t intervene or act on our perceptions because we would not want to cause or incur embarrassment. We will stick around in an area simmering under imminent violence or other trouble because we don’t want to look like a coward, ruin our companions’ time, or something else.

Many a victim has halted pinned in place while an assailant casually strolls right inside arms reach, far, far too close, without challenging them because of social norms and customs. You’ll need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and making other people uncomfortable to ensure you are acting in yours and your family’s best interest of safety and security.

If you are regularly out with your partner or family, make it a point to discuss with them ahead of time a specific word or phrase that you will discreetly say to them when it is time to either leave or for them to follow your instructions implicitly. Tolerate no scoffing, eye-rolling or anything else.

This does not mean overreact: if you bow up and start brandishing whenever someone glances your way, you’ll not only find yourself without any friends and companions pretty quick owing to your being socially rudderless, but you’ll probably wind up incarcerated. You don’t need to start flipping tables over and taking cover behind them just because an argument escalates in public or you see an unsavory character in a restaurant. But you should ratchet up your awareness, pay attention and have your “line in the sand” for more decisive actions

Obviously some events and actions will warrant immediate action. If you are sitting in the restaurant I mentioned above and see someone pull out a handgun that would warrant immediate action. Three guys arrowing in on you in a classic vee formation while you load bags into your car at the back of a dark parking lot likewise warrants an immediate and serious response. Nuance matters, and it is up to you to react accurately and with appropriate intensity.

You are probably thinking, “Duh, Charles! What kind of imbecile would stand there and get waylaid in that scenario?!” You’d be surprised, reader. Survivors and bystanders involved in a great many similar instances would later recall how unreal or disjointed their thinking was at the time. I’m not saying you are an imbecile, but it might be arrogance to believe you will not fall victim to normalcy bias. Treat it seriously, be aware of its smaller, less dangerous manifestations, and unpack them so you recognize them for what they are. With vigilance, training and discipline you can minimize or even eliminate its effects.

Useful Concepts for Additional Reading

There are two concepts, well-known and easy to understand (if not implement) that will do much to help shield your mind from the strangling influence of normalcy bias.

USAF Colonel John Boyd developed and codified the decision making cycle called the OODA Loop. Goofy name, excellent concept; it stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act, and is a transcendent understanding of the dynamics of human conflict, particularly how two thinking adversaries engage each other. While it is well known, oft-repeated and usually shoehorned into all kinds of processes without a full understanding of its intricacies and Boyd’s work, it remains an excellent resource for anyone looking to gain an edge in high-stakes, rapid, fluid situations. Its intricacies are too much to dive into in this article, but I strongly encourage you to familiarize yourself with it.

Colonel Jeff Cooper, the father of the modern technique of the handgun, also developed and set forth what is called today the Cooper Color Code of Awareness. Originally intended to codify armed response to a threat, it is almost universally known by serious students of the gun, and is an exemplary concept that is often tinkered with and applied to reactive action in general. It remains a seminal treatise and foundational element of personal security and awareness.

Col. Cooper’s code progresses in Conditions, from White, to Yellow, Orange and finally Red. White is described as “unaware, unprepared.” This is the default condition of most people, and certainly everyone who is entranced by a witch brick with earphones dangling from their head. In this condition, you are prey, or a speed bump. Condition Yellow is a relaxed state of awareness, and must become your new normal. There is nothing specific that has caught your notice, but you are paying attention to your surroundings and able to escalate and react to anything that might occur. Orange signifies a specific threat, or possible threat. You are focused on it, and preparing to act when your line in the sand is crossed. Condition Red is the line in the sand. When crossed, the fight is on.

I highly recommend you learn from these two great men and their works. They have contributed much to everything we do today, and the value of their pioneering efforts cannot be calculated.

Conclusion

Normalcy bias strikes often, but is always unexpected and undesirable. If you know enough about it, you can fight it, and prevent its influence from turning you and your loved ones into avoidable casualties. With strict discipline, rigorous training, and mental sharpening you can alleviate the worst of its effects and react with appropriate speed and vigor in an emergency, or wisely and early in a looming crisis.

Have you ever fallen victim to normalcy bias, or know someone who habitually keeps their head in the sand? What steps have to ensure you act in an emergency? We want to hear from you in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Normalcy Bias. Will You Underestimate the next Disaster?

  1. With all the prepping I do and trying to maintain good situational awareness while prepping it disgusts me how many times a person or group of people have walked right up to me on my small farm and I never even knew they were in the area. Fortunately for me they were all good friends and not meaning me any harm. Yet I’m still not very aware sometimes as to what is going on around me. And no I don’t wear headsets or listen to music at all. I didn’t realize it until reading this article but my Normalcy Bias is considering myself safe because I live out of town in a thinly populated area. Me thinks maybe it’s time to get a good watch dog. Thanks and have a good weekend.

    1. Squirrel, I’d recommend a couple of them, one of which should be a yappy little terrier. We have a Jack Russell & nothing sneaks up on him. He doesn’t bark just to hear himself make noise; there’s always a reason. Even if it’s just thunder; he takes thunder as a personal insult.

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