Normalcy bias, or normality bias, is a cognitive bias which leads people to disbelieve or minimize threat warnings. Consequently, individuals underestimate the likelihood of a disaster, when it might affect them, and its potential adverse effects. The normalcy bias causes many people to not adequately prepare for natural disasters, pandemics, and calamities caused by human error. About 70% of people reportedly display normalcy bias during a disaster.
Normalcy bias has also been called analysis paralysis, the ostrich effect, and by first responders, the negative panic. The opposite of normalcy bias is overreaction, or worst-case scenario bias, in which small deviations from normality are dealt with as signals of an impending catastrophe.
About 70% of people reportedly display normalcy bias in disasters. Normalcy bias has been described as “one of the most dangerous biases we have”. 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.
Normalcy bias can cause people to drastically underestimate the effects of the disaster. Therefore, people think that they will be safe even though information from the radio, television, or neighbors gives them reasons to believe there is a risk. The normalcy bias creates a cognitive dissonance that people then must work to eliminate. Some manage to eliminate it by refusing to believe new warnings coming in and refusing to evacuate (maintaining the normalcy bias), while others eliminate the dissonance by escaping the danger. The possibility that some people may refuse to evacuate causes significant problems in disaster planning.
The negative effects of normalcy bias can be combated through the four stages of disaster response:
- preparation, including publicly acknowledging the possibility of disaster and forming contingency plans.
- warning, including issuing clear, unambiguous, and frequent warnings and helping the public to understand and believe them.
- impact, the stage at which the contingency plans take effect and emergency services, rescue teams, and disaster relief teams work in tandem.
- aftermath, reestablishing equilibrium after the fact, by providing both supplies and aid to those in need.
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