What is Normalcy Bias?
In scientific terms, normalcy bias is a cognitive bias that leads people to underestimate the possibility of disaster, and underestimate the negative or harmful effects of a disaster as it’s happening.
In layman’s terms, normalcy bias is that voice in your head that’s telling you “everything’s going to be OK”. It’s the wrongheaded thinking that leads people to not prepare for disasters that are obviously coming – like the millions of people who are unprepared for hurricanes even though the live in regions where hurricanes land every single year.
It’s also the type of thinking that leads to people ignoring evacuation orders even as disaster is unfolding before their eyes. It’s estimated that 70% of any given population is affected by normalcy bias when a disaster occurs.
(As an aside, a cognitive bias is any pattern of predictable and repeated errors in thinking by human beings. It’s an umbrella term used by psychologists to describe errors in thinking that affect large numbers of people that lead to warped or inaccurate views of the world.)
Does Normalcy Bias Affect You?
The fact that you’re on this site at all might make you think that you’re not susceptible to normalcy bias. But you’re probably wrong.
Here’s a question that can help determine whether or not normalcy bias is something that has an effect on your thinking. Keep in mind that it’s perfectly normal to be affected by this – it’s pretty much hardwired into our brains to think this way. The key is to find appropriate ways to combat it once you’re aware of it.
So here’s the question.
Do you have a first aid kit or other kind of emergency kit in your car?
If you answered no, then normalcy bias is affecting you (at least in terms of how you perceive the risk of driving.)
Outside of diseases like cancer and heart disease, car crashes are one of the leading causes of death in the US (just behind suicide and opioid overdose). Everybody knows that driving can be dangerous.
On average, a person is likely to get into some sort of car accident once every 19.7 years. Even if you haven’t been in a serious car crash yourself, you probably know at least one person who has either been injured or killed in a car accident.
So it’s clear that driving can lead to injury or death on any given day. You might be thinking to yourself that you’re a safe driver, but we all understand that we’re not the only ones on the road, and that even if we’re driving safely, others might not be, and this can still lead to us getting into accidents.
First aid kits or other emergency equipment could be lifesaving in the event of a serious car crash. For example, you could apply a tourniquet to a badly bleeding wound, buying time for emergency services to arrive. It costs us next to nothing to simply stash a first aid kit in the car. But how many of us actually do?
That’s normalcy bias in action. We understand that cars can be dangerous, and that accidents do happen, but barely any of us have done anything at all to try to lower the risk of death or injury with regards to car crashes. Because we all think that “It won’t happen to us”.
Another even better example is seatbelts. If you’re someone who doesn’t wear a seatbelt when in a car (either back seat or front seat), then you’re definitely affected by normalcy bias. A seatbelt costs nothing to use and has been proven to make cars safer, so the only reason you would choose not to wear it is that you can’t imagine being involved in a serious car crash at all (because it’s not what normally happens when you’re in a car.
What Causes Normalcy Bias?
There are basically two theories of why humans are affected by normalcy bias, and both have something to do with our evolutionary instincts as animals.
The first theory is that this instinct is a leftover from the days when we were prey for larger, more dangerous predators. Some animals “freeze” when in danger – in many cases this is better than fleeing because being motionless makes it harder for a predator to spot you. This is basically the human equivalent of a “deer in the headlight” reaction. In the face of danger, we “freeze” and our brains slow down. Our slowed brains then cause us not to react quickly to the impending danger.
While freezing in place might’ve been effective for us when we were hunted by predators larger and faster than us, it doesn’t do us any good if we freeze in the face of an evacuation order for an approaching superstorm.
Another theory suggests that people are essentially bad at understanding probabilities. If someone says “There’s a 80% chance it will rain tomorrow”, our brains process that as “it will rain tomorrow”. If we saw that person the next day and it wasn’t raining, we’d think that they were “wrong”. The opposite is true as well – something that has a 5%chance of happening might be processed by our brains as something that has 0% of happening.
This might explain why we experience normalcy bias in the face of disaster. Major disasters are almost always low probability events, so our brains continually process them as things that won’t happen.
Even when we know disaster is coming (like a hurricane), there’s usually only a small chance that the storm will truly be dangerous to us if we stay in our homes. Our brains then treat this as “There’s no chance this storm will be that bad” and therefore feel comfortable ignoring evacuations orders.
Examples of Normalcy Bias in Action
Some of the most devastating events and disasters in recent history highlight how common it is to see normalcy bias even in extreme situations.
During Hurricane Katrina for example, even as it became clear that the storm would have truly devastating effects, thousands of people refused to evacuate, believing that they’d be fine staying in the homes despite repeated warnings to the contrary.
On the Titanic, apparently many people refused to acknowledge the reality that the ship was sinking for hours, and refused to board the emergency lifeboats – to the extent that the first lifeboat wasn’t even fully occupied when it detached from the main ship.
Research has found that during 9/11, almost a thousand people took the time to turn off their computers before attempting to escape. The average person took 6 minutes before heading down the stairs. Many people sought confirmation from colleagues or peers before attempting to evacuate.
In one incident, an airplane engine fire on a Boeing 737 in 1985, a significant number of the passengers were found to have stayed in their seats without attempting any kind of escape even as toxic fumes and smoke killed them.
In the midst of a global pandemic (COVID-19), plenty of people are going about their business as though “everything is normal”. This might be because people hear that the mortality rate is roughly 1%, and normalcy bias makes them write that off as essentially zero risk, even though Coronavirus has killed more than 500,000 people worldwide and more than 120,000 in the US.
Just to be clear, none of this is criticism of the people who were caught in these disasters and reacted in the way they did. Normalcy bias seems to be a part of human instinct for most of us, which means that unless we take specific steps to fight against it, it’s not surprising that it will affect our decision making.
How to Combat Normalcy Bias
As with most other survival related dangers, the dangers of normalcy bias can be reduced with proper preparation. This preparation falls into one of two categories. The first is supplies and resources, and the second is having a preparedness mindset,
The first is easy – actively fight against the instinct that tells you that “everything will be fine”. Don’t ignore the risks that you’re aware of. If you live in an area that’s affected by hurricanes every year, then make sure you have an emergency kit that’s suitable for hurricanes. If you live near a fault line (mainly the west coast if we’re talking about the US) – then make sure you have the right gear and supplies to deal with the potential consequences of an earthquake. Live in tornado alley? Be prepared with the right gear to deal with tornadoes.
Now, emergency kits will vary depending on the kind of disaster you’re preparing for. For hurricanes, in some cases you’ll want to shelter in place, whereas with the worst hurricanes, you might want to evacuate. So prepare for both situations – stockpile some food, water, and perhaps have an option for emergency power – so if you need to hideout in your home for a few days while the hurricane blows over, you can do so (even if the power goes out). For an earthquake, you’d want a survival flashlight, a first aid kit, a portable radio, and a dust mask. You get the idea.
The point is, you already know the most likely risks you’re facing – but you might not have prepared for them properly yet because there’s a voice in your head telling you that even if it happens, your life won’t be that badly affected. You need to start ignoring this voice and start taking sensible precautions, especially for the “known” risks that are prevalent in your particular area.
The second thing you need to do is more of a mental change to work on. Essentially, rather than “freezing”, you need to train your mind to react to danger in a different way. Oftentimes, normalcy bias damages our ability to react because the danger we’re facing is new and we don’t have time to analyze or process it properly. Because the stress causes our brain to slow down, we fail to act appropriately in the face of disaster, often looking for reassurance or following someone else’s lead. To avoid this, we need to avoid the need for reaction/analysis altogether and jump straight into action.
How do we do this? Easy. We drill it into our habits that if scenario A occurs, that the proper thing to do is action B.
Think of the “duck-and-cover” drills that schools had during the Cold War, or fire drills that happen in offices every year, or modern day school drills for what to do if there’s an active shooter. This kind of drilling might seem dumb and pointless most of the time, but in fact the purpose of these safety drills is to try to teach people to overcome their “normalcy bias”. If you’ve been through a drill (and you’re taking it reasonably seriously), when the real thing happens you won’t need to analyze the situation to see what to do – you’ll know the appropriate course of action and be able to act immediately. In a genuine disaster situation, skipping the analysis stage (which is slowed down by normalcy bias) could be the difference between life and death.
So, how do we apply this to real life? Simple. Drill emergency procedures for the disasters that you’re most likely to face.
If you live in a place affected by hurricanes, before hurricane season starts, run an evacuation drill with your family that involves packing the appropriate gear and supplies into the car and evacuating in a timely and orderly manner.
If you live in an earthquake zone, make sure you and your family know to Drop, Cover, and Hold On – this is the most basic earthquake survival technique. This is definitely something you should practice along with your family. Make sure your family knows not to run outside or stay underneath doorways, and drill all of this once or twice a year so it becomes a habit. That way, if a real earthquake hits, they won’t have to think about what to do and get stuck in the trap of normalcy bias.
So – now you know what normalcy bias is, what causes it, and how you can combat it. Hopefully this also helps explain why so many people are irrationally resistant to the idea of prepping and survivalism. If you’ve ever come across someone who acted like you were crazy for having a stockpile, or for wanting to learn basic survival skills (we definitely have) – normalcy bias is probably the reason why you’re getting this reaction. Don’t forget – something like 70% of people display signs of normalcy bias when faced with disaster, so it’s not surprising that the idea of preparedness throws so many people off.
Hopefully, this article has helped you understand exactly what normalcy bias is, and how to overcome it so that you can more effectively keep your family safe from danger and disaster.