Some time ago I came across a term that relates directly to disaster preparedness. Normalcy bias. Before I go any farther, I want to offer a disclaimer. I am not a psychologist, although I have been known to try (as an amateur) to get inside someone’s head from time to time. I’m totally unqualified to comment on, analyze or otherwise complain about anyone’s behavior. However, that never stopped any of us from doing so.
Normalcy bias is defined by Wikipedia as the state of mind people enter when faced with a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster occurring and its possible effects. This often results in situations where people fail to adequately prepare for a disaster, and on a larger scale, the failure of governments to include the populace in its disaster preparations. The assumption that is made in the case of the normalcy bias is that since a disaster never has occurred, then it never will.
Normalcy bias refers to our natural reactions when facing a crisis that since something like this has never happened to me before, then it never will. It is human nature. Having a strong normalcy bias will prevent someone from preparing or planning or even taking action in the face of a disaster. Think ostrich-like behavior.
Take the teenager with a fresh drivers license. He has never had an accident, so therefore it won’t happen to him. The normalcy bias often results in unnecessary deaths in disaster situations. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans a few years ago, the government, at all levels, waited far too long to respond. Even as it became clear that the levee system was not going to work, tens of thousands of people stayed in their homes, directly in the line of the oncoming waves of water. People had never seen things get this bad before… so they simply didn’t believe it could happen. As a result, nearly 2,000 residents died. The lack of preparation for disasters often leads to inadequate shelter, supplies, and evacuation plans. Even when all these things are in place, individuals with a normalcy bias often refuse to leave their homes. Studies show that more than 70% of people check with others before deciding to evacuate.
As Barton Biggs reports in his book, Wealth, War, and Wisdom: “By the end of 1935, 100,000 Jews had left Germany, but 450,000 still remained. Wealthy Jewish families kept thinking and hoping that the worst was over.” This is one of the most tragic examples of the devastating effects of the “normalcy bias” the world has ever seen.
Perhaps the very first survival skill that someone could have is eliminating their normalcy bias. The realization that your comfort zone can change, and change rapidly, is the first step towards being adaptable. It is impossible to think about or plan for disaster if your mind cannot accept that it could actually happen.
As always, you may direct your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous columns can be found on my blog at www.disasterprepdave.blogspot.com. Dave Robinson is the Postmaster in Bandon, Oregon, and the author of “Disaster Prep For The Rest Of Us.” Available on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and other online booksellers.