By Denis Korn
In the 37 years that I have been involved in the emergency preparedness industry one fundamental question always emerges – especially after a significant disaster – why are so many people in denial of a possible or impending disaster when to many others it seems self-evident? Then the next questions emerge – why are so many unprepared and what prevents people from implementing the necessary actions to protect and provide for themselves, family or business? Is it a lack of information and initiative, funding, time, fear, lack of common sense or all of the above? Or perhaps there is something else.
The answer appears to be Normalcy Bias.
So what is normalcy bias and what can be done to address its effects? Business leaders, government agencies, security workers, firefighters and police, emergency management personnel and anyone involved in emergency/disaster preparedness want to know – how can vulnerable citizens be motivated to take responsibility for their own safety and protection in the event of a significant emergency?
A definition and explanation from Wikipedia:
— The normalcy bias refers to a mental state people enter when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster occurring and its possible effects. This often results in situations where people fail to adequately prepare for a disaster, and on a larger scale, the failure of the government to include the populace in its disaster preparations. The assumption that is made in the case of the normalcy bias is that since a disaster never has occurred then it never will occur. It also results in the inability of people to cope with a disaster once it occurs. People with a normalcy bias have difficulties reacting to something they have not experienced before. People also tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible, seizing on any ambiguities to infer a less serious situation.
The normalcy bias may be caused in part by the way the brain processes new data. Research suggests that even when the brain is calm, it takes 8–10 seconds to process new information. Stress slows the process, and when the brain cannot find an acceptable response to a situation, it fixates on a single solution that may or may not be correct. An evolutionary reason for this response could be that paralysis gives an animal a better chance of surviving an attack; predators are less likely to eat prey that isn’t struggling.
The normalcy bias often results in unnecessary deaths in disaster situations. The lack of preparation for disasters often leads to inadequate shelter, supplies, and evacuation plans. Even when all these things are in place, individuals with a normalcy bias often refuse to leave their homes. Studies have shown that more than 70% of people check with others before deciding to evacuate.
The normalcy bias also causes people to drastically underestimate the effects of the disaster. Therefore, they think that everything will be all right, while information from the radio, television, or neighbors gives them reason to believe there is a risk. This creates a cognitive dissonance that they then must work to eliminate. Some manage to eliminate it by refusing to believe new warnings coming in and refusing to evacuate (maintaining the normalcy bias), while others eliminate the dissonance by escaping the danger. The possibility that some may refuse to evacuate causes significant problems in disaster planning. —
Normalcy bias can be expanded to include a wide variety of non-response/denial reactions to the events that occur in everyday life. This is especially prevalent given the uncertainties and fears of the social, economic, educational and governmental breakdowns in our contemporary culture. Having taught college critical thinking courses, I have studied and observed the inability of most folks to critically think through an important or serious situation – too few critically think, they react – or worst yet – they do nothing.
With so many natural and economic disasters happening currently we often witness the tragic results of normalcy bias. People unwilling to get out of harm’s way – people unprepared to cope with the aftermath of a catastrophe – people totally dependent on the government, charity and others – fear, helplessness and misery.
We here of people being warned of impending disasters such as hurricanes, floods and fires, yet there is needless suffering, death and injury because of inaction or of acting too late. I am always disappointed with people when it is reported that at the last minute so many stores are sold out of essential survival and preparedness supplies.
A primary attitude of one with normalcy bias is that the disaster or catastrophe is truly regrettable, and it will not happen to me but unfortunately it will happen to others. The person refuses to believe that they also are subject to misfortune and potential suffering. Tragedy always seems to happen to other folks.
The classic example in recent history is the unfortunate suffering and death of countless Jews during the Holocaust. During the rise of Nazi persecution, the majority of Jews could not or would accept the reality of the moment and inaction was devastating.
Those suffering from normalcy bias are unable and/or unwilling to accept the responsibility of acknowledging the reality surrounding them – and taking the appropriate and prudent action. They are in the hands of providence.
What to do?
If I had a simple answer to this question the world would probably be beating a path to my door. Overcoming normalcy bias, denial and lack of motivation is not only difficult, it requires a level of strength and determination that is counter to so much of the indoctrination of contemporary society – which fails to support personal responsibility and self-reliance.
I will however offer some suggestions to address this debilitating condition of normalcy bias – this is serious stuff – your life and the life of loved ones and associates may depend on understanding what it takes to act!
- Acknowledge that you or another you care for experiences normalcy bias or denial. Become educated as to the effects this condition has on your life.
- Understand that honesty is the cornerstone of emergency preparedness or contingency planning. Although it is difficult to confront the reality of the potential scenarios that might occur causing a catastrophe, denial will not make it all go away.
- Seek the support and advice of knowledgeable, compassionate and responsible friends, colleagues and industry leaders.
- Embrace the peace of mind that results from knowing you have taken the initiative to act on behalf of family, friends or employees if you manage a business.
- Pray, reflect, or meditate about the value of being prepared for the consequences of unforeseen and probable emergencies or disasters, and critically think about the specific action steps to take.
- Research and evaluate your options.
- Remember that emergency and disaster preparedness planning requires addressing the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of those experiencing a traumatic and stressful event.
- Utilize the guidelines, suggestions and information at Learn To Prepare. Especially the strategy outlined in my article Beginning and Improving Preparedness Planning.
- Attitude is Everything! I want to encourage and support all of you who choose to move forward and be prepared and effective.