Normalcy Bias- the Pandemic's biggest killer
Updated: Jun 8
When the Titanic hit an iceberg and started sinking, the people aboard were shocked. Most of them were in denial that this grand ship, on its first voyage, could go down. Many of the first lifeboats to leave the ship were only partially filled.
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, many of the nearby residents stayed around and reportedly watched the volcanic eruption for hours. Over 2,000 of them died as the deadly ash cloud reached them.
When Hurricane Katrina approached the city of New Orleans in 2005, everybody in the city was given ample warning to evacuate the city. Many residents chose not to, and ended up perishing in one of the worst natural disasters of the 21st century so far.
What do all of these tragedies have in common? They are examples of a deadly cognitive bias called normalcy bias. Normalcy bias, also known as the Ostrich Effect, is when people hesitate when faced with impending disaster, choosing instead to affirm that things will keep going on as normal, and that any danger will eventually pass. We can see examples of normalcy bias in almost any tragic situation, from car crashes to 9/11 to the Holocaust. People were presented with a real and present danger, and chose to deny it- hoping it would go away or get better on its own.
The opposite problem, Chicken Little Syndrome, is when people see possible dangers and overreact, taking steps out of proportion to the dangers involved. But normalcy bias is so common because it makes the unthinkable more bearable. All cognitive biases are normal, understandable reactions of the brain to a world that's confusing and dangerous. We filter information based on our biases, create mental shortcuts to help process that information faster, and make up stories to create long term meaning from the everyday chaos of life. They help us make sense out of our world, but blind us to many realities and dangers that we'd rather not face.
The most costly and obvious example of normalcy bias is in full view in 2020 with the Covid-19 epidemic. Faced with a potentially deadly virus that not only threatens lives but also livelihoods, people have fallen into the trap of denialism. Our brains hate uncertainty and change, and this virus has brought plenty. So to adapt, many of us have tried to wish the virus into oblivion by ignoring science and recognized precautions like masks, social distancing, and vaccines. But the Covid denialists are no different than the Jews who wore yellow stars on their chests, certain that the Nazi's would eventually come to their senses and afraid to upset the status quo. Viruses are relentless organisms, copying their DNA with ruthless efficiency and passing it from host to host. They don't care if you believe in them or not.
Normalcy bias gives us the comforting lie that things will always be okay, that they will proceed as they have before, and all you need is a little faith. The truth behind that bias is that things change, life is unpredictable sometimes, and that what you think of as normal is sometimes neither good nor healthy. It's a silky bubble that we can hide in as the tidal waves approach us, but its protection is worthless.
Denial is recognized as one of the five stages of grief, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes, during an impending disaster, we need to bypass all of those stages to get to a sixth one- decisive action. Denial is our brain's last ditch defense against a reality we'd rather not accept. No one like this pandemic and its crippling toll on businesses, families, and individuals. No one likes mandating masks or closing bars. But like it or not we have to get to acceptance quicker and take more action to save lives.
So what's the cure to normalcy bias? For starters, everybody needs more disaster preparedness. What would you do if something happens? Not knowing the answer to this question magnifies the risk that you'll end up doing nothing, because without options you just end up paralyzed. Practice ahead of time like the US Military does, so that when the unexpected happens, you at least have an idea of what to do.
Sometimes it's hard to know which disasters to prepare for, or who to listen to. That brings up the second point- vary your input of news and information. During any disaster there will be a lot of bad, unreliable information coming out. No one source- not governments, businesses, mainstream media or alternative media can be trusted 100%. Vary your inputs and avoid the internet when possible, where rumors spread like wildfire and reality is a tricky concept. Cultivate the most reliable sources of information, and use those to help you act the next time disaster is about to strike.
Tornado warnings, when actual tornadoes have been spotted in an area and sirens are activated, are still ignored by a large amount of people. Some go out in their yards, phones in hand and look for them so they can take videos! We have to accept that the National Weather Service deserves our attention until they prove otherwise. The same goes for the Center for Disease Control, US Geological Service, Federal Reserve, state and local governments, and anyone else who is charged with keeping us safer. And when they mess up, we need to hold them accountable.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has bravely led the fight against Coronavirus, says that he has received death threats. This is normalcy bias on steroids. Public health professionals all over the country are quitting their jobs over the pushback and threats they are getting from the public they are sworn to serve. Blaming the messenger is no strategy. The virus is our enemy, not each other. We can yell at the captain of the Titanic all we want, but the ship is going to sink no matter what we say. A better choice would be to make sure to have enough lifeboats before leaving the dock, and then make sure everybody gets on one. Normalcy be damned.
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The above information is provided courtesy of the author who has done his best to be factual. You are still responsible for interpreting and checking those facts elsewhere, and I make no representations that I am a mental health expert beyond what I presented. Thank you.