Reading time: 4,142 words, 11 pages, 10 to 16 minutes.
Most people like to think of themselves as rational human beings. Not many people like to admit they having biases, idiosyncrasies and prejudices. Fewer still believe that our brains are deceptive.
For instance, we rely on memory and believe we can recall events. Yet, neurologists know that we do not ‘recall’ memories. Instead, we recreate them each time we supposedly ‘remember’. We fill in more gaps every time we remember an event. This is why eye witness testimony is so unreliable. Ten witnesses see the same event ten different ways and the more often they retell the event, the more it changes.
I am about to burst another one of your bubbles. You already know there’s no Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny and no Tooth Fairy. Well, there’s also no such thing as a rational human being except perhaps the TV character Data on Star Trek: the Next Generation, and he’s an android; not a human.
Our brains are incredible and remarkable organs. There’s still no computer capable of matching the human brain. However, that doesn’t mean we are free of biases. Many of our biases are useful in everyday situations by providing us with short-cuts and assisting our decision-making process.
Unfortunately, these helpful biases can also be dangerous when used in the wrong situation. Addressing and confronting our biases and fears is the most important factor for survival and the first step in doing so is recognizing them. Survival isn’t some weird cult-thing. Almost every day we hear about one disaster or another: hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, floods, terrorist attacks, economic collapse, etc. We think it won’t happen to us … until it does.
It is natural to gain comfort and security from that which is familiar and predictable. We are creatures of habit. Conversely, when we’re faced with the abnormal or unfamiliar, our stress levels can increase to the point where our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ instincts kick in.
This desire for the status quo is called the ‘Normalcy Bias’ and although it can be a natural defense mechanism, normalcy bias is one of the most dangerous biases we have. It goes by many names. It is also called the normality bias, analysis paralysis, incredulity response or the ostrich effect.
With a normalcy bias, we project current conditions into the future. Normalcy bias is a form of denial where we underestimate the possibility and extent of a looming disaster even when we have incontrovertible evidence that it will happen. We assume that since a disaster never has occurred, then it never will occur. Consequently, we fail to prepare for a disaster and, when it does occur, we may be unable to deal with it.
indoctrination education system encourages conformity. Contemporary society subverts personal responsibility and self-reliance. The ass media filters the propaganda news and politicians lie like rugs so most people are clued-out to what is really happening. Plus, evolution favors paralysis because running triggers a predator’s chase instinct. These reasons plus the insidious effect of normalcy bias explains why so many people are attached to inaction and delusion (“it may happen but not to me”) and thus refuse to accept disaster even when it’s staring them in the face.
Normalcy bias causes people to act as if life is going on as normal while the world is falling apart around them. They’ll say everything will pass as the disaster worsens.
There are many examples of such denial throughout history. Here are several such examples of normalcy bias:
A) Although a few fled, many people in the Roman City of Pompeii in 79 AD watched for hours as Mount Vesuvius erupted without evacuating until it was too late. Then, when the volcano violently erupted, it buried the city and countryside in 4 to 6 meters of pumice and ash killing many of Pompeii’s 20,000 inhabitants.
B) The Nazi Holocaust provides another horrific example. Normalcy Bias explains why so many Jews ignored and underestimated the obvious signs of danger even after they were required to wear yellow stars, possess a ‘J’ stamp ID card and discriminatory laws targeted them and their businesses. Many Jews could afford to have moved but stayed and perished because of their Normalcy Bias.
C) When Mount St. Helens volcano began rumbling in Washington State in 1980, Park Rangers issued warnings for resident to leave and blocked access to keep people out. Some residents ignored evacuation warnings and other campers and sightseers walked or drove around the barricades to get into the park. They’d always camped there and since there had never been a disaster before; their normalcy bias prevented them from understanding the possibility of one happening. Then the volcano violently erupted and 57 people were killed.
D) Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, inadequate preparation by both governments and citizens as well as constant denials that the levees could fail are an example of normalcy bias as were the thousands of people who refused to evacuate. After the hurricane, many of the Louisiana Super dome refugees were unable to cope with the disaster. Many people couldn’t understand that a hurricane could devastate their city and, unable to help themselves, they waited in vain for government help that never came as murders and rapes escalated, sewers backed up, and food and water ran out. Normalcy bias left them unable to deal with the disaster.
E) On the morning of September 11, 2001, one of my colleagues said her son had phoned with the news that an airplane had flown into one of the Twin Towers in New York. I thought that it must be a very small aircraft indeed to be able to fly around inside a skyscraper. That’s normalcy bias. Until then, no jetliner had deliberately crashed into a skyscraper. It wasn’t until her son called again with the news that another airplane had flown into the other tower, that it shook me out of my complacency (normality). Such is the power of the normalcy bias.
F) It’s possible for an entire nation to exhibit normalcy bias. Almost 50% of Amerikans say they are “worse off” financially than four years ago. They see from the news that the Middle East is in chaos, that the U.S. is embroiled in half a dozen unwinnable wars, untold millions of Amerikans are unemployed, 50 million Amerikans are on food stamps and almost HALF of all Amerikans receive government assistance of one sort or another. Yet that “worse off” group believes that President Obama’s handling of economic issues and National Defense as “favorable” and, according to Lisa Schneider, “they defend his positions, agendas, and actions wholeheartedly, while at the same time, the Middle East is more chaotic/unstable than ever, and our financial collapse is imminent here at home.”
The Pareto Principle (“80/20 rule”) which applies to so much human activity probably also applies to the Normalcy bias. In 2007, I emailed my first of many “doom & gloom missives” to everyone on my email distribution list. Not wanting to overload peoples’ inboxes with unwanted emails, I asked how many people wanted such future articles sent to them. 20% said yes. I suspect the remaining 80% are probably more susceptible to normalcy bias than the 20% who said ‘yes’.
In other words, some people will never take preventive action even when disaster is staring them in the face. Just as some Pompeii residents watched the volcanic eruption for hours, many people succumb to negative inertia and do not act until it is too late.
Prepping has gotten a bad name especially after 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting . Preppers may be seen as kooks for their perception of growing government oppression and their potential for armed resistance against a tyrannical government. There may a positive side to this. It encourages preppers to be secretive so the fewer friends and neighbors know about their prepping the better and the less likely they’ll be robbed or overrun with freeloaders. On the downside, preppers who are simply trying to be responsible might be afraid to admit what they’re doing thus depriving other people of this best practice
We live in an ‘instant gratification’ culture that makes it difficult preparing for a rainy day. In addition, the elitists ridicule people who prepare in response to the ‘chicken little’ survival industry; an industry that has cried “Wolf” so many times that people are discouraged from preparing. Nor does it help that we’re inundated by the ass media’s stories of a so-called recovery. Plus, our slow-motion economic train wreck makes it difficult to gauge our slowly declining standard of living.
Another contributor to the normalcy bias is peer pressure and the fear of being labeled as a nut. Even when someone believes that a disaster is imminent, people can be uncomfortable with the possibility of being scorned by their friends or co-workers.
There Are Solutions
The good news is there are solutions and ways to reduce or overcome normalcy bias. It’s not easy overcoming human nature but you’re engaged in one solution right now by reading this. By becoming aware of this all-too-human bias, you will be better able to identify it in yourself and others and guard against it. The fact that you’re on this blog and reading this article means you are either already awake or at the very least are waking up to some of the threats that face us.
There are many ways to overcome normalcy bias, denial and lack of motivation. Here’s a list of two dozen solutions I gleaned from numerous other sources:
1) Overcoming normalcy bias means learning to think for yourself and not relying on the authorities telling you what to do. Also, don’t expect the government to come to your assistance in a disaster. Governments are incompetent and a disaster may overwhelm them and their resources. Hurricane Katrina and Sandy are examples of government failure to respond to large-scale disasters. It took 10,000 government security personnel, martial law and the lock-down of the city of Boston to find one single nineteen year old kid after the marathon bombing.
Acknowledge and learn about normalcy bias. Admit that you and your loved ones experience it to one degree or another.
2) Be aware of who is pushing your buttons. Humans gravitate toward comfort-driven messages and avoid unpleasant news. Being told our lives are in danger is distressing but ignoring such news could be deadly.
3) Another solution is ‘Situational Awareness’. Start by paying more attention to your environment and those around you. You don’t have to go on a survival camping trip to put this into practice.
I live in a high-rise. Many of my neighbors are totally oblivious to their surroundings. They seem to be so wrapped up in their thoughts and concerns; they’re often startled when they become aware of my presence. As the hallways are carpeted, I’ve learned to announce my approach by whistling or humming or saying hello from a distance as soon as I see them. There are hundreds of tenants here and yet people are surprised when they encounter someone else. And, it’s not just zombie seniors but young people, heads down and texting, who are completely unaware of their surroundings. And, at the risk of sounding sexist, it’s almost always females who are startled.
4) Practice by doing thought experiments anticipating possible problems and getting mentally ready for them. What would you do if you were mugged? How would you handle a job loss? Record these solutions by writing them down as this commits them to memory. The more you practice this, the greater the likelihood you’ll be able to choose between fight or flight rather than freezing up or surrendering.
5) How do we determine which threats are real and which aren’t? How do we separate the pepper from the fly shit? Ask yourself objective questions. How likely are we to get hit my an asteroid? It’s not impossible but it is highly unlikely. How likely are we to lose our jobs? It’s a lot more likely than getting hit by an asteroid. How likely is the government and its media handmaidens lying to us that our economies are on the mend? My frequent readers know the answer to that.
6) Admittedly, we’ll never be able to prepare for every eventuality but, the more we practice situational analysis, the better we become at it. Start by taking baby steps. Stay focused. Don’t try to do everything at once.
7) Don’t become overwhelmed by all the fearful news. You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist. Yet the ass media and the so-called security industry would have us believe there’s a terrorist hiding under every bed. Again, consider the absurdity of locking down the city of Boston so the government’s security thugs can search for just one so-called terrorist.
8) Convincing others is never easy. However, there’s good new here, too. The human mind is a wondrous thing that can learn and change but, it needs time. People resist sudden change but over a long period of time we are very malleable.
When you try to warn people of a looming disaster, their normalcy bias might convince them you’re a kook eligible for a tin-foil hat award. Be aware of their doubts. Watch their body language. If you meet resistance, the harder you try to convince them, the more diminishing returns you get until they tune you out altogether. The more they resist, the more solid becomes their denial.
Instead, stop pushing. Use many baby steps over time rather than expecting an “Aha” epiphany moment. Consider limited discussions and introduce small topics to get their brains to start asking questions. Sometimes all you can do is ignite a small spark and hope it catches fire.
Many times I’ve explained something to someone resisting only to have them later tell me what I told them previously. That’s another quirk of the human mind; we tend to retain knowledge but forget the source. When that happens, don’t say “I told you so”. Instead, say “thanks” and be glad you were able to help.
9) Summon the strength and determination to act when necessary even if the majority don’t. Remember, it wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.
10) Be brutally honest with yourself. Wishful thinking and denial can be deadly. Hope is not a plan; hope is for the hopeless. If all you have is hope; you have nothing.
11) Realize that action will save you but paralysis won’t. Sabre Tooth Tigers are extinct now so you won’t trigger their chase instinct. Paralysis won’t prevent or stop a disaster.
12) Seek the advice and support of like-minded friends, relatives, colleagues and organizations.
13) Search the internet for survival, preparedness or prepper websites. Use your judgement to decide what make sense and what doesn’t. A lot of shady businesses have sprung up catering to people’s fears. Buyer beware!
14) Develop survival plans and put them on paper. This is VERY important. I’m amazed how many people do not even have a family fire evacuation plan; what to do in the event of a fire or other emergency. You also need alternate evacuation plans in case Pla A doesn’t work. Also, keep phone numbers handy for you and your children to call in addition to 911 i.e. friends, relatives, reliable neighbours.
15) Save and post WRITTEN plans so you don’t rely on memory when disaster strikes. Don’t assume that by saving them on a computer, you’ll be able to retrieve them when the power is out or you’re on the run.
16) PRACTICE these plans on a regular basis so you aren’t winging it during a disaster. Regular practice reduces stress and trauma when a real disaster strikes and increases your chance of survival. Practice also reveals shortcomings that need to be altered and gaps in the plan. It’s better to discover problems now when you have the luxury of time rather than later when your life is on the line.
17) Acquire or borrow and put on a firefighter helmet, face shield & mask to acquaint children with the ‘otherworldly’ and terrifying appearance of a firefighter so they aren’t frightened into hiding when a firefighter is trying to locate them. Or, call and ask the fire department for their suggestions. They may have family oriented programs available.
18) Take account of different individual’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs when you develop these plans. Plan on making everyone part of the team. In dealing with various fires I’ve sometimes enlisted children’s help. For a shed fire, I asked the kids to move their toys from the yard to the porch. For a car fire in an apartment parking lot, I asked them to move their toys off the lawn and into the lobby. For another fire, I asked them to climb the fence to alert us when the fire engines were coming. Children are fascinated with fire and such ‘busy work’ keeps them occupied and out of harm’s way. It lets them feel they’re helping and part of the team.
19) Be prepared to change and revise plans as you practice them and discover gaps or better methods. However, when disaster strikes; don’t be a slave to a plan. Be prepared to alter it as circumstances dictate. Acknowledge that you cannot cover every conceivable contingency so even the best laid plans need to change ‘in the heat of battle’. Be thankful you at least have a plan to change. It’s a lot easier to alter a plan developed beforehand than try to create one in the panic of an emergency.
20) Ask your family or team for their ideas. One of the most important things I’ve learned is the importance of teamwork. You don’t know it all; nobody does. Several heads are better than one. Different people have different perspectives. Even children have ideas; not always the best but asking engages them, encourages them to think and makes them part of the team. You might be surprised. They might come up with an angle or an approach you hadn’t considered. And, thank everyone for their contribution.
22) Discuss with your family or team why such planning is needed. Then ask them why, in their own words, they think it would help. This also encourages buy-in and reduces trauma and stress when the real thing occurs because they feel they contributed to the plan.
23) Develop a variety of plans for different disasters; fire; flood, earthquake, hurricane, home invasion, auto accident, power outage, terrorist attack, epidemic, train derailment and chemical spills (how far are you from a rail line?), job loss, major illness, martial law, riots and social breakdown, economic collapse, cyber-attack (no internet), major solar flare (CME Coronal Mass Ejection), war, etc.
Granted, this list of disasters can seem overwhelming but don’t be disheartened. When you start planning for them you’ll find that many overlap. Once you’ve developed one plan, you’ll find similarities in dealing with other disasters. The more you plan and practice, the easier it gets.
24) Don’t try to do it all at once. Take it one step at a time. You can accomplish much by starting with the easiest and then take it to the next level. But, you have to start. Like any journey, the first step is the hardest.
25) As you plan for various disasters, make note of gear, equipment or supplies you will need but don’t have and start to acquire them. For instance, many people do not have surgical, particulate or N95 face masks. The time to buy them is before you need them. By the time an epidemic hits, the stores will be cleaned out. And, the last thing you want to do is fight infected mobs at the store.
26) Plan, discuss and be prepared for changing team members. Some family members may not be present but other unprepared relatives, friends, neighbours or even strangers might be. How will you deal with people who have not planned and practiced with you? Expect more stress, trauma, paralysis and normalcy bias from those who are unprepared and make allowances for that. You and your team’s prior planning and practice will have increased your confidence and your calming influence can help reduce panic in those who are unprepared. Having plans on paper will also help as it shows them you’re prepared.
28) How will you deal with family or team members who are away? Develop plans and meeting points if communication is out and practice them to uncover shortcomings and bottlenecks and alternate routes in the event of roadblocks.
29) Plan alternate escape routes if highways are jammed or blocked with disabled vehicles. Traffic moving out of New Orleans trying to escape hurricane Katrina moved at a crawl. Many motorists lacked essentials like food, water and first aid supplies.
30) The three most important elements for survival are:
c) and attitude.
I’m not being glib. All the gear and skills in the world are useless if you have the wrong attitude. The right attitude is NEVER GIVE UP! Planning and practice goes a long way to instilling and reinorcing this important survival attitude.
32) What are your politics? I don’t want to know but, YOU need to know. Those with a socialist bent might be inclined to believe the government will save you. If so, you haven’t been paying attention to recent disasters. If you think the government is a solution, I guarantee you’ll be in for a very rude awakening. Don’t forget the epic failure of martial law in Boston after the marathon bombing where 10,000 donut eaters couldn’t locate a scrawny 19 year old kid until an old man found him hiding in a boat in his back yard. If you think the government is going to save you from a disaster, you might as well bend over and kiss your ass good-bye. Or, perhaps call that old guy in Boston.
Remember the news showing the plight of the New Orleans Super Dome refugees? I’d bet most of them are entitlement-minded socialists who voted for Obama. They were demanding food, water and that someone rescue them. None of them took personal responsibility. Few of them brought their own food, water or even had an escape plan. Being perpetual victims, they blamed the Federal government for a plight of their own making.
The news didn’t show the people with initiative who took matters into their own hands, fired up their chain saws and began cutting up the fallen trees and clearing the streets; in other words neighbours helping one another. Be brutally honest with yourself because your politics will determine your susceptibility to the normalcy bias and your chances of survival in a disaster.
23) Be thankful you have the foresight and time to put this planning and practice into action rather than flying by the seat of your pants during the trauma and stress of an unplanned disaster.
24) Last but not least – do NOT expect to receive thanks, respect, admiration or compensation for having correctly warned or saved anyone from a disaster. Denial, delusion and rationalization are also strong human biases. Their rescue will probably be attributed to some unexpected event or coincidence or luck or divine intervention or whatever.
I’ve been a “Master of Disaster” for so long I take it for granted. I’ve dealt with more fires, floods, injuries and highway, boating and mine accidents than I can remember. When everyone is panicking, I calm them down, form a team, assign tasks and deal with the situation. I’ve learned to fade back into the woodwork when the authorities arrive and let others take the credit. I’m well aware that, although Cassandra prophesied the fall of Troy as well as her own death, no one believed her and she was unable to prevent either tragedy. Rendering assistance is rarely thanked. The bearer of bad news often gets shot so it’s best to quietly fade away rather than become a target.
There are many websites that can help you in emergency and disaster preparation and planning. Here are two good ones by Dennis Korn, whose site has a many useful recent posts and categories.
If you have any other suggestions or solutions, feel free to leave a comment below.
April 26, 2013
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