The Deadly Grip of Normalcy Bias

Like most people who take preparedness seriously, I give no thought to zombies, prophecies, or asteroids. I do, however, give a lot of thought to ensuring I have what my family needs to survive. Namely, safety and enough food, water, shelter, money and skills so that we can thrive if times get tough, but especially if they don’t.

normalcy bias

I enjoy living in the moment, but I also think about what the future could hold and take steps to prepare. To me, that’s just being a responsible husband and father.

But that kind of thinking means I get labeled as a prepper.

Evidently I’m not alone, for not everyone dismisses prepping as a crazy idea. Millions of Americans have now embraced prepping, and the number is growing with every natural disaster and act of senseless violence.

But the barrage of so many doomsday predictions paralyzes the majority of people. Rather than taking steps to prepare, they simply ignore the threats, essentially burying their heads in the sand.

As it turns out, sticking their heads in the sand is, at least metaphorically, a completely normal human reaction. After all, we’re creatures of habit who enjoy predictable and secure lives. We believe that life will simply continue as it has.

This belief that life will continue as we know it is called “normalcy bias.” You can also think of it as having your head in the sand, or the “ostrich effect”.

Normalcy bias is simply the belief that tomorrow will be pretty much the same as it is today, and it has a firm grip on our psyche. When presented with sudden change, unprepared people seize up and the normalcy bias renders them unable to cope. As you’ll see, at no time is this truer than when their lives are at stake, for normalcy bias gets people killed.

I believe it is also the reason why so many people fail to prepare for disasters and life-changing events.

Whether you have heard the term “normalcy bias” or not, we’re all familiar with many tragic examples of this behavior.

Normalcy bias helps us understand why so many Jews continued living in Germany after the Nazis passed discriminatory laws against them and required they wear identifying yellow badges. Even after the concentration camps were fully operational, few people were able to accept that a government had actually built gas chambers and ovens.

They had.

We see the same display of normalcy bias when large populations are asked to evacuate.

For weeks before the volcano erupted in 1980, park rangers issued warnings advising people to evacuate the Mount St. Helens area. Some residents ignored the warnings while sightseers and campers actually circumvented the barricades and entered the park. After all, they had camped there before and never experienced a disaster. This was their normalcy bias in action, which prevented them from assessing the very real potential danger. On the morning of May 18, 1980, the volcano erupted violently and killed 57 people.

While the term normalcy bias may be new to you, it has afflicted mankind for millennia.

Two thousand years ago, thousands of Pompeii citizens were buried in a thick carpet of volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius. Instead of evacuating, they stood dumbfounded for hours watching the volcano erupt. Over 30,000 people died.

normalcy bias start preppingThe same paradox affected survivors of the World Trade Center attack in 2001 when, according to a study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, they waited an average of six minutes to begin leaving the doomed towers.

Elia Zedeño was one of those survivors. At her desk on the 73rd floor of Tower 1, she heard a booming explosion and felt the tower lurch as if it might topple. But her instinct wasn’t to flee.

“What I really wanted was for someone to scream back, ‘Everything is O.K.! Don’t worry. It’s in your head,’” she said.

So she froze.

Fortunately, one of her colleagues reacted differently and screamed, “Get out of the building!”

Zedeño followed the command and made it out alive, but not before taking a moment to snag a mystery novel from her desk.

Others delayed much longer, up to 30 minutes, as they calmly turned off computers, collected possessions and, it seems, looked for others to tell them that everything would be okay.

They were held firmly in the deadly clutch of denial.

The problem is that “most people go their entire lives without a disaster,” according to Michael Lindell, a professor at the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. “So, the most reasonable reaction when something bad happens is to say, this can’t possibly be happening to me.”

When faced with a horrible, jolting change, it seems our minds reject the bitter truth in favor of a palatable lie.

On December 7, 1941, a radar operator on Oahu reported seeing an unusually large “blip” on his radar screen. When he notified superiors, the reply he received was, “Don’t worry about it,” as authorities assumed it was a returning flight of U.S. planes. The large blip, of course, was the first wave of Japanese fighters and bombers, whose surprise attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted the United States into World War II.


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Facing an imminent disaster, thousands of New Orleans residents who were able to evacuate refused to do so in advance of Hurricane Katrina. After all, many had survived numerous storms amid false predictions that the levees could one day fail. So they stayed, and over 1,400 people paid for that decision with their lives. The unprepared survivors became homeless refugees, solely dependent on volunteers and authorities for food, shelter, water and medicine rather than their own preparations.

The paralyzing grip of normalcy bias hinders our ability to make decisions in all disasters, whether they are natural, manmade, or tragic accidents.

In 1977, a KLM flight slammed into a Pan Am plane in the Canary Islands, slicing it open. Passengers aboard the KLM plane died instantly, but most of the people on the Pan Am flight survived the initial impact. Once the plane came to rest, fleeing survivors ran past people who simply sat completely bewildered, but uninjured. Rather than exiting the plane they remained seated and watched with apparent disbelief for 60 seconds as flames encroached. They were unable to overcome their normalcy bias, which reassured them that “it” wasn’t happening. “It” was, so 326 of the 396 passengers on the Pan Am plane also died, making the crash the deadliest accident in aviation history.

Most people believe that the chances of surviving a plane crash are slim, so it may surprise you to learn that the survivor rate in plane crashes is well over 90 percent.

The National Transportation Safety Board examined all air crashes that occurred between 1983 and 2000. Of the 53,487 people involved in those incidents, 51,207, or 96 percent, survived. They looked closely at 26 of the most serious accidents that involved fire and substantial damage. Excluding those in which no one had a chance, the survival rate in even the most “serious” accidents was 77 percent. So, even in bad crashes, three out of four passengers survive.

Though the facts indicate a high survival rate, people generally don’t believe it. Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivor’s Club, refers to this as the myth of hopelessness:

“One dangerous consequence of the myth of hopelessness is that when people believe there’s nothing they can do to save themselves, they put themselves in even greater peril. Before flying, they pop a few drinks in the bar. As soon as they get on the plane, they take off their shoes, crack open a book, read the paper, or crank up the iPod. They ignore the safety briefings and information cards. If the plane crashes, they figure it doesn’t matter if they’re drunk, barefoot, and blindfolded: They’re dead anyway.”

Since it’s normal for planes to arrive safely, passengers simply don’t prepare for anything other than what is normal. People generally take the same approach in all phases of their lives, which, I believe, is why we fail to prepare for emergencies.

Aviation safety expert Ed Galea studied over 2,000 survivor reports from aviation crashes. His findings clearly illuminate how normalcy bias costs lives when passengers try to escape a downed airplane.

“People try and press a button on the seatbelt, because, in an emergency situation, they revert to normal behavior. And what is normal behavior for most people? Well, they experience a seatbelt in their car and in their car, it’s a push-button system.”

The European Transport Safety Council estimates that 40 percent of the fatalities in global plane crashes were actually survivable. So why did those victims perish instead of survive? In survivable crashes, experts say, it boils down to human factors and what you do—or don’t do—to save yourself.

Case in point—The Pan Am crash in the Canary Islands.

The Pan Am passengers who sat bewildered were killed not by the air crash, but by their normalcy bias. Their minds couldn’t accept the brutal reality that had been thrust upon them—that they were alive, but had to unbuckle their seat belts and exit the aircraft to stay that way.

Studies show that about 70 percent of people in a disaster are hindered by normalcy bias. Later in this book you’ll read a story of a horrific fire that claimed 100 lives. I’ll share a link to a raw video of that tragedy, which shows people calmly moving while surrounded by a blazing fire that, seconds later, claimed their lives.

Denial, delusion, and rationalization are very strong human biases that are difficult to overcome without a determined effort. Overcoming your normalcy bias requires a survival mindset, which I wrote about extensively in Start Prepping!

Question: How’s your situational awareness? In what situations do you feel most vulnerable? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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