Normalcy Bias

I want to discuss a topic that is both fascinating and yet concerning to me.  That topic is normalcy bias.  I consider myself to be both logical and data driven - I look at the facts, and the data, and draw conclusions from that data.  I use the best sources that I can for that data, as close to the original sources as possible - taking the media and hearsay out of the equation as much as possible.  I haven't watched traditional news media regularly for years, as they are tend to have their own agendas and often focus on sensationalism and hype.

I have observed a psychologically extreme reaction in some people when I, or others, discuss topics that threaten to disturb their normal routine or world view.  I have seen this when talking about things like the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), coronal mass ejection (CME), or even coronavirus (COVID-19).  All of these things, and many others, have the potential to disrupt one's normal routines.  Normalcy bias is a tendency for people to believe that things will always function the way they normally have functioned and therefore to underestimate both the likelihood of a disaster and its possible effects.  In a certain subset of people, when topics like this are discussed, they have an almost involuntary reaction of both fear and denial.  They make statements like "that can't happen" "that will never happen" or "if that happens then I guess I'll just die."  They are being driven by emotion and not logic.  Not only that, but if they have a family that depends on them, they are failing to protect and provide for them when they might need it most.

Personally, I find that reaction difficult to understand or relate with.  As a logical data driven person, I always want to understand possible scenarios that might affect me and my family, and then develop contingency plans and put steps in place to mitigate the effect that those possibilities might have.  You can see this dichotomy of people when you look at 'preppers' and 'non-preppers.'  Preppers, or those who like to be reasonably prepared for relatively likely scenarios that might negatively affect them, have plans in place to help mitigate the effect of those scenarios on their families- including such things as stored food, water, medical supplies, communication equipment, and protection against civil unrest.  In my view, that's just common sense and what every American should do.  Even government agencies like FEMA recommend that citizens take those precautions to protect their families.  But there are others who dismiss 'preppers' as 'crazy' just for preparing to protect and provide for their families.  Even a cursory study of history demonstrates that every day routines, and the supply chains that make them possible, are frequently interrupted- and that is even more true in today's global economy than in the past.

Normalcy bias is also called analysis paralysis, the ostrich effect, and the negative panic - because these reactions, which are essentially based in denial, deny the person the ability to take positive action to deal with the potential event.  I have observed people react in such an irrational manner that they deny facts themselves.  This is a psychological condition where they are so unwilling to consider the possibility that their normal environment will be impacted, that they lash out and attack the data or evidence that the potential event is based on.  

I have also observed projection, where the person talking about the possibility of a negative event and presenting the data is attacked and labeled a doomsayer.  This is because if the recipient accepts the data as true, they would be panicking because they are not prepared, and thus they believe that the presenter must be panicking as well.  In fact, the presenter is likely quite calm because they have processed the data and prepared to mitigate the event as best as possible.  Most preppers are calm and levelheaded in the face of a threat because they know that they are as prepared as they can be.  It's the unprepared and those who embrace the normalcy bias that panic when they realize their world may change and they have done nothing to prepare for that change.

Normalcy bias is why the residents of Pompeii watched the volcano erupt for hours before evacuating, and why thousands of people refused to leave New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached.  It's why many aboard the Titanic took no action to prepare to evacuate, and why reactions to the Chernobyl nuclear incident were so slow to occur.

As I write this, the COVID-19 coronavirus is spreading throughout the world.  The media has unquestionably hyped this event in such a manner that a public that is already mistrustful of the media, is largely in denial that anything is amiss.  People are lashing out at the facts and the data and anyone presenting them.  Conspiracy theories are running rampant.  They fail to believe that the death rate is what it is, or that the healthcare system could be so easily overwhelmed, and they are arguing against such common sense precautions as school closures and social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.  This is the reaction that we would expect from those who are not prepared to deal with and endure such a situation.  Some of these people who are finally accepting that there is a legitimate threat- but have not prepared in any way, are now panicking and reacting in irrational ways such as purchasing all the toilet paper they can find.

We need to focus on logic and reason, and base our plans and decisions on the data, not on emotion or irrational fear.  Those who are prepared are not fearful.


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