It's Not Cool to Overreact: How Normalcy Bias Will Define Our Future
Psychology explains our greatest weakness.
We think people panic during a crisis.
Actually, most do the opposite.
In 1977, two planes collided above a runway. A handful of passengers climbed out of the ruptured hull. Everyone else burned alive. It wasn’t because they were injured. They were all wide awake. They just couldn’t get moving.
They didn’t want to panic.
There’s a similar story about the 9/11 attacks. One woman remembers being rocked out of her chair by the first explosion. At first, she was going to sit back down and wait to see what everyone else did. She even admits, "What I really wanted was for someone to scream back, 'Everything is O.K.! Don't worry. It's in your head.’” Fortunately, someone yelled, “Get out!”
Even then, she didn’t leave. She spent several minutes walking around in circles, gathering up her purse and a handful of books.
Psychologists have a name for this behavior:
It’s called normalcy bias.
It can be fatal.
Amanda Ripley theorizes normalcy bias in Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why. She paints a stark description of it in a related article: “Large groups of people facing death act in surprising ways. Most of us become incredibly docile…Usually, we form groups and move slowly, as if sleepwalking in a nightmare.” In short, we don’t panic. We chill way out.
We’re easy to control.
Psychologists have documented this glitch for decades. About half of people are almost destined to shut down during an emergency. Even if they can function, they’ll spend precious time gossiping with each other and trying to get more information before they even try to do anything.
Scientists call it milling.
Sometimes, they’ll even distract themselves by calming strangers down and minimizing their concerns. Maybe you’ve noticed.
Many of us have encountered this attitude daily over the last few years. It’s infuriating. We’ve tried to get those around us to take various threats seriously, whether it’s the coronavirus or climate change. Our friends and family wave us off. It leaves us feeling isolated and unbalanced, wondering if we’re the ones with the problem. We’re not, and normalcy bias shows just how weird people act in the face of threats. Most of the time, they’re predisposed to shrug it off.
It’s how we’re built.
For some reason, nature hardwired normalcy bias into our brains. Some scientists say there’s an advantage here, at least some of the time. Slowing ourselves down to process information is what separates us from other animals. It can keep us alive. Doing it for too long negates that advantage.
In the Journal of Community & Public Health, Carl Ross explains how normalcy bias has hampered our approach to the pandemic.
As he writes, “we are sensitive to the perception of others viewing us as abnormal. Within social relationships, very few want to be seen as alarmist, overreactive or a fool because if they are wrong about a threat then they will be regarded as less credible in the future.” He goes on to state that “social shaming reinforces our normalcy bias. It’s not cool to overreact.”
We’re well into the social shaming stage of the pandemic. It doesn’t seem to matter how much evidence we have. People won’t adopt the simplest measures to protect themselves or anyone else. A disturbingly large portion of the public seems totally unmoved by stories of children dying in hospitals.
Many of us have struggled to understand how tens of millions of decent people could possibly act like this. Normalcy bias explains everything. Like it or not, they’re doing what their brains have evolved to do.
It’s not new.
During any given crisis, you can count on 30 percent of the public to respond appropriately and do the right thing.
About ten percent will freak out.
Those ten percent cause riots and stampedes. That’s why governments and mainstream media work so hard to silence them. Unfortunately, they don’t do a very good job of distinguishing between the ten percent who panic and the ten percent who know what we should be doing.
They get us mixed up.
So does the public.
Another ten percent will get in the way, insisting that everything’s fine and everyone should just calm down. Everyone else will stand around waiting for someone to tell them what to do. They make up about 50 percent.
So when you add it all up:
30 percent respond well.
10 percent freak out.
10 percent minimize.
50 percent go into sheep mode.
Psychologists have observed this pattern over and over again in everything from earthquakes to traffic accidents. It’s practically baked in that 70 percent of people will wait until it’s too late to solve a crisis.
Research on normalcy bias has revolved around short-term crises, but we’re seeing the same dynamics play out in the long term. For example, entire cities are about to run out of water within the next couple of years. The majority of people are determined to pretend that everything’s fine.
Well, we know why now.
It’s a design flaw.
There’s a great chapter on normalcy bias in David McRaney’s You are Not so Smart. As he writes, “Normalcy bias is stalling during a crisis and pretending everything will continue to be as fine and predictable as it was before.” He also says that most people have “a tendency to interpret strange and alarming situations as if they were just part of business as usual.”
Basically, we can’t count on 70 percent of people responding to threats the way they should. We have to keep disrupting their normalcy bias. We also have to deal with minimizers getting in our way. Unfortunately, the minimizer crowd includes a lot of people who occupy positions of authority. I wouldn’t be surprised if the politicians and CEOs even know all this, and use it to their benefit.
Normalcy bias is going to play a defining role in our culture going forward, as the threats we’ve been warned about for decades become daily realities. The mainstream news will keep coming up with cute ways to spin the latest supply chain crisis or epic disaster, right before redirecting our attention to the latest vacation deals. We’re going to see a lot of strange behavior. We’re going to see a lot of people who don’t seem to have any survival instincts at all.
Remember, it’s not cool to overreact.
Until now, I’ve been hoping that activists would have an easier time getting people on board with urgent action as the consequences become more self-evident. But if psychology holds true, we’re going to have an extra obstacle to fight. We’re going to have to recognize people’s normalcy bias and call it out. Being polite won’t work, if it ever did. We have to start shouting.
Politicians and billionaires are going to exploit our biases to keep everyone believing that everything’s fine, even when it’s not. The more acute the dangers grow, the more pressure we’ll feel to act normal.
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