Normalcy bias is a human coping mechanism. It causes us to underestimate the likelihood of a disaster happening and its possible consequences. Normalcy bias forces us to deny warning signs that may seem out of place because our brain is insisting everything is/will be okay. I don’t have to tell you that ignoring warning signs is dangerous. The problem with normalcy bias is the majority of the time it is telling you that nothing bad can or will happen.
Pompeii: 79 AD. During the Roman Empire some people watched Mt. Vesuvius erupt for hours. We now have permanent figures of humans burned alive in its wake after Vesuvius covered an estimated 20,000 inhabitants in pumice and ash.
Holocaust: By 1935 over 100,000 Jews had left Germany, yet an estimated 450,000 wealthy Jewish families remained in Germany and constantly insisted that the worst was over. They insisted it would return to normal. We know in hindsight that was a poor decision culminating with mass genocide, but all the warning signs were present. J-cards were issued and other discriminatory laws put in to place, but everything is alright…right?
Katrina: Local government and citizens were completely unprepared for the vast devastation hurricane Katrina caused. Evacuation warnings were issued and yet citizens remained at home insisting the levees would hold. The levees didn’t hold and Katrina swallowed half of Louisiana. As stranded inhabitants waited for government aide that would never come, robberies and violent crime skyrocketed. Again everything is just fine, it will return to normal.
9/11: Hitting a little close to home now. If you were alive for 9/11 do you remember your reaction to seeing or hearing about the events of September 11th? I was in a college classroom that morning and can remember for a moment entertaining the idea that it was an elaborate hoax. Then I moved to thoughts that it had to be an accident. That’s it right? Then the second impact happened and it snapped me out of that normalcy bias. It was at that point I realized one may be an accident but two is an attack.
Why do I bring up these examples? These are large scale events. These should show you the lengths to which you brain is willing to go to in order to maintain your day to day take on life. In most cases your brain is right and it provides some very useful shortcuts in day to day life. However, when it comes to survival, normalcy bias is not your friend. Think about the recent news anchor shooting. Think about how many people were walking by during the video the assailant made. He stood there with a camera and a gun for what seemed like an eternity and no one ran or screamed. Normalcy bias can “delete” things from your vision or thought process that is distressing.
Of course our first thought comes to whether it can be trained away? Short answer is not really. Human nature is a really hard thing to overcome with training. There are a few things you can do to try to sensitize yourself to your bias and attempt to minimize it. Thought exercises help you think about how you would respond to a given situation. While it might sound stupid we all do it thinking through stages at matches. Why should it stop there? Situational awareness is a constant battle. How much information do you need to take in? Do you need to see everyone’s eyes and hands while you are walking through Wal-mart? If you want to go crazy you can try. On a day to day basis we operate on the expectation that the average person is a law abiding citizen and they are not out to harm us. This is where normalcy bias is advantageous otherwise we would never leave our homes. What we can do is attempt to recognize our bias and not let it make us complacent.
This article’s release has been delayed a couple weeks. In that time frame I was thrust into the realization that even my own family cannot overcome normalcy bias. As many may know the SC State Fair ended last week. My wife asked if we could take our son because he had a great time last year. Last year the fair did not post signs prohibiting concealed carry. This year they brought out the metal detectors. I told my wife that I did not want to go because of their position on concealed carry and refused to give them my business. I also let her know I did not feel comfortable around that many people drinking and goofing off. Long story short, she looked at me like I was crazy and just could not understand why I felt the way I do. I cited examples of violence at the fair the last couple years, even the year we did go. She kind of dismissed my caution as paranoia. The same day she was planning on taking my son to the fair, there was a shooting at the fair that left a 15 year old kid hospitalized after someone passed a gun over the fence. (So much for gun free) Bad things do happen. You cannot prepare for all of them and you can’t walk around as if they will never happen to you!