Understanding the Normalcy Bias Could Save Your Life.
I am going to tell you a true story of personal tragedy. It was one of the most valuable learning experiences of my life. I have one regret…I wish I would have understood a strange phenomenon called the normalcy bias.
The formal definition is the phenomenon of disbelieving one’s situation when faced with grave and imminent danger and/or catastrophe. One tends to over focus on the actual phenomenon instead of taking evasive action and enters a state of paralysis.
On October 27th, 1993, my home, along with 350 others in Laguna Beach, California burned to the ground. It was our first house. My husband and I hadn’t even unpacked all our wedding gifts.
Early that afternoon, I went home to evacuate. My husband was out of town. As I made the long drive to the top of the hill where my house overlooked the ocean, the scene was surreal. Most of my neighbors were on their roof tops, watching the fire burn along the north side of the 133.
The fire was raging less than one thousand feet across the gorge, yet no one was packing their cars or preparing to evacuate. They were standing, like deer in the headlights, facing their inevitable doom. I hit the accelerator, pushing my old car to the limits of its capabilities, desperate to get to my home so I could get my important things. I promised myself to be out in 30 minutes or less.
But, something strange happened. I went from being focused on an efficient evacuation, to a complete state of disbelief. For the next three hours, I paced frantically back and forth, glued to the TV. I was biting my nails while wondering if it was really worth the trouble to pack up my car since the chances of something like this actually happening to me were so slim. Hello!
That, my friends, is the normalcy bias in action. I was paralyzed with indecision even though the facts of my situation were undisputable. I learned many life lessons with that experience. I no longer hesitate to evacuate immediately when we are threatened with a natural disaster, which is about once every other year in California.
In some ways, I feel like Americans are under the influence of the normalcy bias as it relates to the state of our economy, our currency and the security of our nation. Convincing facts are piling up like fire across the gorge. All it will take is one little shift in the wind to send us into a tailspin that is incomprehensible. Yet, most people I speak with don’t seem the least bit concerned. Could this be the normalcy bias at work?
My story didn’t end well. I was jolted back to reality when I literally felt the heat from the fire. During the last 10 minutes in our home, I was too flustered to function. In the end, I left with only the dogs and my life, trying to escape the 100 foot high wall of flame that was swallowing homes.
I have always questioned my behavior that day. Why did I ignore my initial instinct to get out? Why did I go into such a powerful state of denial? Now, I know—it was a textbook case of the normalcy bias.
I could be completely wrong about the state of our nation. I am no expert. But I see signs everywhere and I can’t shake the feeling that we are in for a big shakedown. I have vowed that 2011 is my year to get prepared for an emergency, whatever it may be. Maybe next time, I won’t be caught with my proverbial pants down.
The normalcy bias is alive and well during every crisis and natural disaster. Just look at the events of hurricane Katrina and the recent BP oil crisis or any atrocity. Now, I realize that the normalcy bias played a huge role in individual behavior, corporate behavior and the behavior of our government.
Things would have been much different for me Oct. 27, 1993 if I had known about the normalcy bias. If you haven’t been through a major disaster or crisis, it’s difficult to comprehend. Understanding this phenomenon could save your life. Use it as a resource to get prepared and to overcome the denial that happens when faced with crisis, so you can act with a clear head and possibly save your life.
Article first published as Understanding the Normalcy Bias Could Save Your Life. on Technorati.