You may or may not have heard of normality or normalcy bias. Why is it important to understand it – and why exactly should you care?

When a disaster strikes, some people are more prepared than the others. We live in a hectic world and the faster it changes, the more unpredictable scenarios might occur.

However, most of the potential threats fall in some of the following categories: natural disasters, pandemics, financial, and all kinds of safety threats. These include anything from burglaries and active shooter incidents to war and terrorism.

While it’s relatively easy to identify the main threat, we often overlook the fact that our brain can be the enemy as well.

In SHTF scenarios, our brain has an innate tendency to play tricks on us. Some of these tricks are helpful, while others can put us in even greater danger. Normalcy bias is one of these dangerous tendencies of our mind.

It is a tendency to believe that everything will continue to be ‘normal’ even though there are warning signs that point to the contrary.

As a result, we underestimate both the likelihood of calamity and the possible consequences. It is in line with thinking that nothing terrible will ever happen.

Or: even if something happens, it won’t happen to me. So, it’s a sort of denial and false optimism.

What Exactly Is Normalcy Bias and Does It Affect All of Us?

Normalcy bias is also called the ostrich effect and negative panic.

You’ve probably heard of the ostrich effect. It means that when it gets tough, you metaphorically bury your head in the sand like an ostrich does. (By the way, this is a myth. Ostriches know better than to do that.)

When we panic, we rush our decisions and make mistakes. Negative panic is the opposite, when panic freezes us and makes us do absolutely nothing.

In each and every disaster there’s a time when normalcy bias plays its part.

Here are just a couple of examples.

Most hurricanes can be more or less predicted. When people get an evacuation warning, most of them refuse to leave or only do it when they see the weather is changing. Just think of Katrina and Sandy hurricanes.

In several active shooter events, witnesses could clearly hear gunshots, but they chose to think it must have been the firecrackers or even car accidents. It’s obvious that these wrong judgments can make a difference between life and death.

However, not all of us are equally prone to normalcy bias.

When SHTF, some people panic, others do nothing. Yet others stay cool and take decisive actions immediately. Research shows that about 70% of people will display normalcy bias before or during the disaster. 

So, even though it’s our mind playing with us, it’s possible to avoid or overcome this tendency when we least need it. But, you must know the enemy in order to win.

What Causes Normalcy Bias?

Normalcy bias is just one of many cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are mistakes in reasoning and judgment. It’s a really long story, but the bottom line is that we are not as smart as we think. More often than not, we are not rational but rationalizing creatures.

It means that our brain selects information that will make us draw wrong conclusions to feel good for the moment. 

No one really knows why we are so prone to making wrong calls.

Partly, it is an evolutionary adaptation. Dangerous situations are stressful. Our rational mind doesn’t like stress because it slows it down.

On the other hand, when in jeopardy we need to react quickly. So, there’s no time for analysis, comparisons, and search for the most logical answers.

There are many different mechanisms that affect our action and normalcy bias is one of them. If overwhelmed with stress and inability to come up with an instant and acceptable solution, our brain focuses on a single, usually ‘normal’ solution as if nothing unusual is happening.

Fight or flight is a typical response for animals, but we are a little bit better than that. Or maybe not? 

Well, we are. People who stay calm, rational, and decisive in crisis are proof of that. But, most of us will accept our brain’s deception. So, we need to find a way to overcome this potentially dangerous threat.

normalcy bias

How to Overcome Normalcy Bias – 7 Tips

We can’t change our human nature. So, unfortunately, there’s no training that will wipe away normalcy bias.

However, there are measures that everyone can take to overcome normalcy bias or at least shorten the time frame and mitigate the effects of it. Very often, we are lazy to take precautions, but being prepared is the first and very important step to avoid normalcy bias. So, this is what we should do.

1. Acknowledge the uncertainties

Unpredictable and dangerous scenarios might occur. Modern technologies and our way of life give us a false sense of security. But, disaster can happen anywhere and to anyone – including you and yours. 

2. Don’t rely on others

When SHTF, no one else is going to save you. Actually, it might happen but you can’t rely on it.

Authorities can be slow and ineffective, your cousins or neighbors might be overwhelmed with their own problems. After all, your well-being is solely your responsibility. So, be ready to react and act.

3. Make plans

Planning is crucial.

While you can’t predict everything, an action plan provides a frame and structure. This allows your brain to process the situation better.

Instead of pondering whether to act or not, your mind will be searching for the most efficient ways to implement your plan.

4. Try to stay calm and rational

Preparing yourself mentally is as important as stocking up supplies.

Most disasters don’t come out of the blue. So, face facts and register early signs.

With the right mindset and rational thinking, you will avoid both panic and denial.

5. Don’t disregard the worst possible scenario – disregard your normalcy bias instead 

It is intuitive for us to have hope and believe that the worst scenario won’t play out. It’s a typical normalcy bias mistake. So, try to be ready for all scenarios, especially the worst one.

Do you think that this view of things is too bleak and gloomy? Try to envisage the worst. Once you’re ready for it, it will be okay to think whatever you want. At least you’ll be sure that the thinking won’t hinder you.

6. React quickly

When we hear unpleasant news about an upcoming disaster, we tend to confirm data from more sources than we need. It’s because we hope that we won’t get confirmation.

That’s how we lose precious time. Be prepared to react and think and analyze along the way. The golden rule is to react faster than you instinctively feel you should.

7. Learn situational awareness

Situational awareness (SA) consists of three basic segments: perception of the environment, comprehension of the situation, and projection of future development.

Professional soldiers, medical emergency personnel, vehicle drivers in the transport industry, and many others go through SA training to minimize mistakes and avoid normalcy bias. Do some research, take a course if available.

Conclusion About Normalcy or Normality Bias

Every one of us has probably experienced normalcy bias at least once. This flaw in our processing can seriously endanger us in disaster events.

However, we can learn to avoid or overcome it quickly. As a matter of fact, being a prepper is good to begin with. All regular prepping activities such as storing food, preparing water containers, self-protection training, first-aid training, building IFAK, and so on, are helpful to face disaster and avoid normalcy bias.

The more prepared you are, the easier it is for your mind to act rationally rather than rationalize or ignore the obvious.

normality bias disaster

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