Normalcy Bias, by KR in TN

Most people I know enjoy a little adventure. While it may not be sky diving, even the more reserved, quiet spirits appreciate a change of pace. Some get their kicks from visiting the mouse at his Magic Kingdom, while others get it from a morning in the tree stand or an afternoon under the hood. Regardless of what they do, folks like to break up the monotony of the daily grind. Doing the same ole’ same ole’ gets old, but the day to day life we live is what we’ve come to expect. Yesterday was the same as the day before it, so we expect today to be the same as yesterday and tomorrow to be the same as today. For the most part, that is exactly what will happen. In fact, what does happen when our routine is disrupted? We can get thrown off fairly easily.

What is it?

Fortunately, we normally face very few truly serious situations in our lives, and most disruptions are minor inconveniences. Car accidents happen, but relatively few are fatal; fires happen but are comparatively rare. When these tragedies do strike, we often come through them with a few bumps and occasionally smelling like smoke but with little true damage. “Those things” only happen to others– sometimes people we know– but almost never to us. This leads to what we refer to as “normalcy bias”, which is the inability to recognize the possibility or the potential severity of a disaster.

Here’s one small scale example of normalcy bias: the power is out, but you still flip light switches as you enter a room, even while you carry a flashlight or candle. You know the power isn’t working, but habit and normalcy bias prevents you from fully grasping the situation and consequences you face and making necessary adjustments. This is the same reason you open the refrigerator door numerous times and let out cold air, even when you know the power outage means it’s not running and won’t stay cold during the blackout. We’re conditioned to them working, and we assume they’ll be back soon.

While light switches and refrigerator doors are relatively minor issues, the problem with normalcy bias is that it can be absolutely deadly. Normalcy bias will kill, because it camouflages danger, allowing those threats to sneak up and bite when least expected. We’re caught flatfooted, failing to act on the signs of danger, since the expectation is that things will work out. After all, they always have, haven’t they? Rather than getting out in front of the approaching calamity and ahead of the curve, the boom falls and knocks us on our can. We can still adapt and overcome, but at that point we’re already behind the eight ball.

Consider how these situations and normalcy bias complicates your decision making. Your neighbor feels under the weather, which is perfectly understandable considering it’s been a cold, wet fall. However, is it a common cold or another case of the latest highly-contagious illness sweeping the country? The Dow opens low and quickly falls lower. Is the drop in stock prices a minor correction, or is the bottom falling out of the economy? We can’t jump at demons hidden in every shadow, but we also can’t sit back on our heels. But normalcy bias interferes with many people’s thought process and convinces them that things are fine (or will be again soon enough).

Many times it’s not ”us” that struggle with normalcy bias. We see the possibility and signs, which is why we prepare. Often it’s our spouse or children who wrestle with believing that things could drastically change for the long term, or at least long enough to completely change our way of life. This further complicates our critical thinking. When the people we care about most are telling us that everything is fine and there’s nothing to worry about, we not only have to combat our own normalcy bias, we have to contend with our loved ones’ desire to believe that all is well with the world. Deciding when to bug out is even more difficult when the very people we’re planning to care for don’t want to go along with our plans. By their reasoning, everything has turned out alright thus far, why assume the worst this time? And how many of us can blame them? We’ve seen a myriad of scenarios come to nothing, despite the undoubtable certainty that they could have easily gone the other way. So, there it is, the seed of normalcy bias, waiting to lull us to sleep at the worst possible opportunity, when we need to be most awake.

How do you overcome normalcy bias?

In the EMS world we call it “maintaining a high index of suspicion”. Just because things look relatively calm now, we keep our head up and eyes open when dealing with our patients, because we know that stable situations fall apart quickly and the sooner we recognize that slide the faster we can react, treat the patient, and get back ahead of the curve. It’s no different in the world of preps. You have to have your head on a swivel for what’s coming down the pike.

That high index of suspicion comes from being well informed and studied on the potential for problems as well as the signs and symptoms of those problems. Situational awareness was drilled into all of us in Marine Corps aircrew training. Knowing what was going on around us, and having a practiced plan for when things went wrong, was critical to our mission accomplishment. I have yet to meet a prepper who doesn’t follow the news. We look to our sources for intel and scuttlebutt to connect the dots and show us what’s going on behind the scenes. Our desire for information also accounts for the importance we give to comms and the regard we hold for radio operators. Ham operators are more than just hobbyists; they’re the backbone of our communication network and the source for gathering and dispersing ground level intel.

There’s a significant difference between situational awareness and paranoia we need to keep in mind. Situational awareness is keeping your ears open. Paranoia is believing everything you hear. Working at a retail store selling emergency preparedness supplies, I have opportunity to talk shop with many different folks with many different perspectives as well as theories. The truth is that we all come at prepping from different angles and may take a different tact on both what preparedness means or what we’re preparing for. However, despite our differing levels and subjects of concern, we all agree that we need to prepare. The bottom line is that regardless of your thirst for intel, you will never truly understand what’s going on behind the scenes. That’s not to dismiss anyone’s effort to peer behind the curtain, but a little perspective here is crucial. As my boss is fond of saying, “I’d rather be drinking a cup of coffee from a well-stocked, safe position while watching mushroom clouds in the distance with absolutely no idea what’s going on than be lying dead in a ditch knowing exactly what was happening.”

There’s another place where normalcy bias bites us. Normalcy bias leads us to assume that others are like us, think like us, act and react like us, and see the world through our lens. They don’t. No one has seen what you’ve seen or experienced what you’ve experienced. No one can ever share your unique perspective, no matter how like-minded they may be. It takes time to develop a group norm that supersedes the individual normative. However, these individual differences are essential to the group, adding perspective. The ability to see issues from other angles is absolutely indispensable, which is one of the great benefits from working together with people who may be like-minded but are not simply clones mimicking your own thoughts and opinions.

Whether friends or family, the people you surround yourself with all have their perspectives and world views. Where they differ from your own, there’s the possibility of conflict. It’s easy to lock onto the differences, focus on the places where unity is thin, and pick people apart. Most groups will implode from personality strife at the point those differences become central. The wise group is the one that learns to listen to these different voices and formulate a comprehensive plan that incorporates individual skills and talents and implements strong communication, as well as some oversight and accountability. This allows everyone to contribute to the betterment of the group, valuing others’ perspective and the differing opinions that come with them, while also providing a structure that keeps everyone moving in the same direction, not to mention adding a layer of insulation against the bite of normalcy bias.

It’s impossible to completely prepare for every contingency, but with good planning we can stay well ahead of the curve. Some days that’s the best we can get, and we have to pray that’s enough. Whether you’re working alone or with a group, a new prepper or experienced old timer, keeping strong situational awareness and a high index of suspicion will guard against falling prey to the sting of normalcy bias.