What is Normalcy Bias?
In a book by Amanda Ripley titled, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why, Ripley states that people tend to ignore the potential for a disaster or delay dealing with it in any capacity. Ripley attributes this to normalcy bias—the belief that since we look for patterns to understand our lives, and a disaster is not part of our usual pattern, we choose to discount them. It is easy to say, “this can’t be happening to me—things like this happen to other people.”
Moreover, this is supported by peer pressure and we believe that we may “risk social embarrassment by overreacting”. Ripley also identifies mutual response patterns of people in disasters and explains that there are three phases of response: Denial, Deliberation, and the Decisive Moment. This is quite common and there are actions you can take to keep yourself from slipping into this thought process.
Example – September 11th
One of the most devastating tragedies to hit American soil was September 11th. The action of those in the twin towers was not like what you may see in the movies where the actors react immediately to a threat or disaster. Ripley shows how rather than panic, some take extra time to turn off computers, gather personal items, and chatting about what happened. Since in a normal day, disaster is not a part of our usual pattern, we tend to get the “this is not happening to me” mindset, and this ultimately meant the difference between life and death for some. Ripley likes to call this the denial phase, and this is the phase we most want to avoid.
Who Survives Disasters and Why?
In Ripley’s writing, it is often an individual’s resilience and those who can overcome the fear and take relevant action that ultimately survives such disasters. For the most part, complacency is innate or fixed in most adults but you can train yourself to a certain degree. The biggest problem with normalcy bias is the fact that we fail to take action, we panic or freeze. Ripley explains that this is common when three conditions are met: people feel trapped; they feel helpless, and they feel isolated even if in a crowd.
How to Prevent Normalcy Bias
The negative effects of normalcy bias can be prevented through four stages of disaster response:
- Preparation: no matter how much you want to believe that it isn’t happening to you, openly recognizing the possibility of disaster and forming contingency plan can save your life.
- Warning: the need to issue clear, unmistakable, and frequent warnings and convince yourself and others that the threat is real and get them to believe your warning.
- Impact: this is the stage at which time your contingency plans take effect and emergency services, rescue crews, and first responders begin to work.
- Aftermath: restoring normalcy and getting to safety or supplying others with necessary supplies for recovery.
Realize That Bad Things Happen
It’s important to realize that we all have a certain degree of normalcy bias and need to work toward ridding ourselves of the problem. Realize those bad things happen, and they could happen to you. To help avoid this, I recommend you pay attention to government warnings and possibly dangerous situations and prepare yourself the best you can. How many times have you heard the tornado sirens only to continue watching your favorite show from the couch? This is a normalcy bias; the tornado won’t hit here. Take action and don’t let your mind convince you that no action is needed. React.
Normalcy bias is in all of us and it provides comfort and allows you to be optimistic in a world that has seemingly gone crazy. It is paramount that you break this bias for your own survival.