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I did a post the other week on cognitive biases. It was well-accepted, thank you all, so I thought to write some more of them. Alas, Babylon! There are no lack of biases. People do things unconsciously is no news to psychiatrists and psychologists. What is ‘news’ is these don’t always stem from childhood traumas like that time you were six years old and mother didn’t give you a second brownie like she did to ‘good child’. Rather, biases arise from our primal primate wiring towards survival, mostly through being accepted by the group.

I thought to write about a specific bias one that needs its own entry. While it isn’t the ‘worst’ of them, in the long wrong this one may do us the most harm.

The normalcy bias: in a danger we often become calm and pretend everything is normal in a crisis. We all know the ‘fight or flight’ instinct. When faced with danger we assume we either run away or ‘stand and deliver’, as it were. This choice isn’t as frequent as it seems. When we are confronted in a situation we tend to try to see it in context of what is normal. Because of this we have a tendency to twist strange and alarming situations as if they were part of business as usual.

Normalcy bias is stalling during a crisis and pretending everything will be fine. Those who defeat the bias act when others don’t. They move when others are considering whether or not they should or have decided to stay put. Those who overcome the bias they have to brave the fact they will look silly for their actions. The ones doing nothing are likely to see the few doing something as fools and jeer at them. Group ostracism makes one hang back.

This explains why countless there are countless events of folks staying put despite news of a pending fire, hurricane, or tornado warning. Try telling folks to get to the lifeboats or leave the hotel – they often don’t move. People hope the matter won’t happen or it will spare them. If the threat is ‘far off’, people react even less. If the threat is eminent, people become paradoxically frozen not to act .

Normalcy bias is a state of mind out of which you are attempting to make everything OK by believing it still is OK. To reduce anxiety of impending doom, you cling to what you know.

Normalcy bias filters into global matters, like climate change, a large complex event in which people fail to act because if it difficult to imagine just how abnormal life could be if the predictions are true. Normalcy bias kills.

Solution: Preparation is the first step. “Be prepared” like having a hurricane evacuation plan and tornado/fire drills, practiced. These help one go into action without having to think what to do. Having and listening to clear, unambiguous, and frequent warnings helps as well. Mostly (this is my opinion) this is the one time to allow ‘worse-case scenario’ thinking to veto the (in)action of magical thinking that things will be alright. When a man comes into your convention room and announces there is a fire and please move slowly to the exits, don’t sit there, but get up and go.

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October 2021

Spo-Reflections 2006-2018