Friday, November 30, 2012

"Normalcy Bias" Makes Us Think Everything's OK...but it's NOT

I got a breathless email from a friend asking me what I thought of Normalcy Bias, "and how it applies to America and those of us who see and realize what the worst could be--and those who say the worst is impossible, and those who see it but can't take that amount of stress and so deny/go into the Normalcy Bias."

I figured she wanted my opinion as a psychologist and one hooked up to the punditry of politics. In our house, we live and breathe current events, which makes life interesting, and sometimes depressing.

Whatever my qualifications, I'd never heard of the Normalcy Bias, so I did what anyone would: check it out on Wikipedia. (I see they've got a fund-raiser going on, and frankly, that's one service that deserves supporting, given how it's become essential for understanding anything.)

To save you the clicks, Normalcy Bias is the human tendency to downplay or even deny negativity, especially extreme peril. People who didn't want to prepare for Hurricane Sandy, ignoring warnings because "it'll all be OK" are prime examples.

This is what I answered to my friend:

I wasn't really familiar with the normalcy bias, though it certainly makes sense. My reaction is that people respond to the world based on three things: their experience, emotions and logic, probably in that order.

If people have never experienced a potential disaster, they must respond to its possible existence in the realm of speculation and, in a sense, fantasy. Without any experience, they have few expectations, even if told what they may expect, which handicaps them regarding action.

Emotion is probably the most potent influence, I'd say. People definitely deny bad things; that protects them from the pain and anguish fearsome prospects or events cause. Normalcy Bias is therefore a matter of self-preservation against negative feelings, which, clearly, nobody wants to have.

Then there's logic, and when you say "the worst is impossible," even logic dictates that "the worst" case on a continuum of possibilities is unlikely. What is likely is something in the middle, neither the worst or best-case scenario.

In some situations, the BEST-case scenario is the most logical--take the case of LA, where I grew up, inhaling a LOT of smog. The city was a gray blob of inert, foul air. And there were forecasts that LA would be uninhabitable because the number of people and cars was

Well, that ignored human capability--people researched and discovered what caused the smog and legislated it out of gasoline, thus significantly reducing the problem! Any projections must take into account THE BEST possibilities as well as the worst; focusing only on the worst is as biased a view as Normalcy Bias.

My friend, who's the type who put all her wealth in gold, and stores it someplace out of the country, is likely referring to the Fiscal Cliff, or perhaps some kind of Obama-driven take-over that would pare civil rights (including gun ownership). She considers her steps prudent; even if the worst doesn't happen she's prepared "just in case."

One wonders what level of "preparedness" isn't the Normalcy Bias but an optimistic outlook. I feel confidence that our nation has enough sensible people to correct missteps. After all, this election, like so many before it, was razor-close. Those deciding winners were actually the ones labeled "undecided." We are able to turn right or left, responding to circumstances. My friend brought up Nazi Germany, where the populace and even some in the know just refused to believe what was going on. Is it smart to "prepare for the worst but hope for the best?" Or is that going too far?

Sometimes I think that people who ignore warnings are just lazy. It's so much easier to succumb to inertia and do nothing. Moving your money takes investigation and planning and often, more money just to make the change. Keeping an earthquake kit in the garage with jugs of water requires maintenance. We have a couple gallon jugs of water and some freeze-dried food in our garage, and every time I see it there, I wonder if, in case of a disaster, we'd be in any position to find it or use it. We haven't switched out the water for quite a while. Is that stupidity?

I truly do have a bias toward normalcy, and I think it's because I'm incorrigibly optimistic. On the other hand, I intellectually understand that a range of perils is poised. No one ever thought a skyscraper could be collapsed by an airplane impact except the evil perpetrators of 9-11. Can we live in constant vigilance? Or does that diminish our quality of life?

I daresay I'm unsettled by the prospects of the Fiscal Cliff, but I'm probably more relaxed about it than my friend. There has to be a golden mean between attention to the frighteningly and the thrillingly possible.  I think the term "normalcy bias" actually contributes to unnecessary panic about what the future could bring.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Petreaus & Libya "Coincidences" Explained in my Fantasy

This is my fantasy, a series of thought balloons over Pres. Barack Obama's head, containing what he's been thinking to himself. Given the many coincidences developing about the timing of when authorities knew about Gen. Petraeus' affair with Paula Broadwell, and the general's resignation right after election day, as well as the real-time viewing of the Sept. 11 Libya terrorist attack, and its subsequent spin by Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton--well, I can't escape formulating this little cartoon timeline about the driving thought in the president's mind over the last few months. And now, he's bowing in Cambodia while Israel's defending itself. I don't think I'm the only one imagining this particular scenario.

May, 2012 thought balloon over Barack Obama: "Gotta get re-elected!. Must win this election! Nuts; what's this about Petraeus and this Broadwell woman? I appointed him; he's my guy. Gotta shut this up. Must get re-elected!"

July, 2012: "Must win re-election. Whatever it takes, get re-elected! Petraeus has to keep quiet about his affair 'til I'm elected. Shut him up til I'm re-elected..."

September 10, 2012: "Gotta get re-elected! Must win this election! Whatever it takes, win this election! Can't allow Romney any momentum!"

September 11, 2012: "Uh oh, trouble in Libya. Must get re-elected! Minimize what's happening in Libya; gotta win this election!"

September 12, 2012: "Big problems with Libya--deaths there, even!--but must get re-elected! At least there's that stupid video. Susan and Hillary must spin; 'Spontaneous demonstration against video.' Can't let it interfere with my re-election.  Must get re-elected!"

October 4, 2012: "I blew that debate. Why did I stick to those damn talking points? Must make up for it. Gotta get re-elected!"
October 21, 2012: "Too much leaking out about Libya. Must win re-election! How to stop Fox News jabbering about Libya!?! Dear GOD, stop these Libya questions so I can win!"

October 31, 2012: "I didn't mean that literally, but wow! Sandy knocked Fox off Libya; even Christie thinks I'm cool! Will win re-election! Will win re-election!"

November 6, 2012: "YES. I did it. OK, Petraeus, go ahead. Become honorable now. Doesn't matter. I'm IN."

November 11, 2012: I even won Florida. I'm set. Petraeus, you're history; big deal. Even if all the Libya stuff comes out, the worst I'll get is censure. Give it a few days and I might even have a press conference."

November 10, 2012: "Everything's going to be OK. Stocks down 500 points; ignore--I'm in. Israel pelted by missiles from Hamas; hand it off to State Department and ignore--I'm in. Petraeus affair heads the news; great distraction. Take more photos with hurricane victims."

And now, after days of stunning silence during which the leaders of Canada, Germany, France and Britain issued strong statements in support of Israel, Pres. Obama finally admits from Bangkok "Israel's right to defend itself from missiles landing on people's homes."

Final thought balloon over Pres. Obama's head: "Stay as personally non-committal as possible. Don't ever have enough information on anything to comment. Do whatever I want to do. After all, I'm IN."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Veterans, from The Greatest Generation to the Petraeus Affair

Veteran's Day should have been a lot more than a day to shop. Most Americans skipped participating in the national expression of gratitude for the untold disruption, pain, courage and accomplishment for the men and women who serve in our military.  Our service personnel deserve recognition far beyond a single day's pause.

From my dad's days in the service
My father was a Major in the Army in World War II, one of the Greatest Generation whose sweethearts and families were also directly affected by the war effort. My mother answered the call by working at Douglas Aircraft; she was a secretary but many other women there acted as iconic "Rosies the Riveters," taking on jobs considered masculine. Americans lived with product shortages and rationing, with blackouts when it was feared enemies might fly over and attack.

Here's a belated shout-out to all the veterans I know, and a fond remembrance to those gone who made real sacrifices to keep our nation safe and democracy flourishing. Thanks for your service.

So what do we make of this riveting scandal about General David Petraeus and his "biographer," as she's come to be called (not his "fellow adulterer" or even "nemesis" as are appropriate), Paula Broadwell? What about the twist of Broadwell's "harassing" emails to Tampa "socialite" and "unpaid social liaison" at MacDill Airforce Base Jill Kelley, and the extended connection to Afghanistan commander, 4-star general John Allen?

I'm a suspicious sort when it comes to politics, and see the logic in accusations by Fox News commentator Judge Jeanine Pirro that the Petraeus affair was kept under wraps until after November 6, lest his testimony or unofficial comments detract from the president's spin on the Benghazi embassy attack and murder of four--and thus prevent his re-election. It seems too much of a coincidence that the affair, which was apparently known for several months, is revealed and Petraeus resigned before spilling the beans on what really happened during the real-time viewing of the attack, which occurred after pleas for protection were denied.

Meanwhile, our sordid curiosity forces us to focus on Paula Broadwell, married mother of two little children, whose creepy anonymous emails scared Jill Kelley enough for her to seek an investigation. Which brought into the picture Gen. Allen, whose 20,000 pages of emails with Kelly have been deemed "flirtatious," and will occupy our dedicated Defense Department employees for many an hour.

Why is this even an issue; after all, it's "just sex," as defenders of President Clinton said of his Monica Lewinsky dalliance in the Oval Office. My skeptical brain tells me it's an intentional decoy away from the Benghazi mega-flub; away from the fact that Obama has yet to speak out about the 100 missiles lobbed on Southern Israel from Gaza while Syria shells the north. Our president has some serious international issues, and the news media are consumed by military flirtations and adulteries. This is not a good way to start a new term of office.

Paula Broadwell with biography of her 'close mentor'
And it makes our military look bad. If our most trusted officers don't have the self-discipline to keep their sex urges under control, how can we trust them to uphold the highest standards of propriety in their duties? How can they focus on our national security when they're juggling the tangled web of deceit required by affairs and even flirtatious emails? I'm sorry, "just sex" is the euphemism for larger ethical lapses. And it's going to cost in many ways as it continues. Transparency is the guarantee of honesty, but even the lauded term transparency can be smudged and fudged, and I'm very worried for our nation.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Superstorm Sandy: Election Catalyst for Obama in an Act of God

I grew increasingly worried as I watched the approach of Superstorm Sandy toward the Eastern Seaboard last week--and not just for the safety of those in its path. Until the hurricane started monopolizing the newswaves, serious accusations about the president's role dealing with the Libya embassy terror attacks were gaining huge traction, but with the storm, God flipped the course of the election.

Fox news had previously featured nearly continuous coverage of serious issues calling into question the president's handling and spinning of a premeditated 9-11 Anniversary terrorist attack that left four Americans dead. Hillary Clinton's insistence immediately that the attack was a spontaneous protest of a YouTube video quickly was discredited as information surfaced about real-time viewing of the hours-long terrorist assault in the White House situation room. The executive deception aimed to squelch evidence of the president's incompetence in the embassy incident (and by implication any urgent foreign affairs). The truth of a premeditated, organized attack would destroy Obama's oft-asserted campaign boast that "al Qaeda is on the run!"  Its revelation could have Watergate-like effects, showing him complicit in concealing a major, deadly event. And as many note, nobody died in Watergate, the cover-up of a break-in to steal documents that led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974.

But with Sandy's threat, the demise of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others was swept aside. As the swirls on the weather map moved closer, the evacuation of thousands in the most populated areas of New York and New Jersey naturally overtook the airwaves.
With the touchdown of the hurricane and its attendant death and destruction, as well as the loss of utilities for cities that inconvenienced and even imperiled many additional thousands, the president gained the opportunity to step forward into the limelight non-stop. I don't own a TV, but imagined ceaseless coverage of a savior-president lifting muck-encrusted children from car rooftops and rescue rowboats.

Even my fantasies were surpassed by the over-the-top praise Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey lavished on Pres. Obama during his near-immediate damage-viewing excursion: “the President has been all over this and he deserves great credit.” He said Obama's response had been "outstanding," despite the fact that half a million citizens remain without power and gasoline is rationed a week following the governor's kudos.

After viewing tonight's results, my husband told me of exit polls that asked the role President Obama's handling of Superstorm Sandy had in voter's decisions: "About four voters in 10 say Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy was important in their vote (42 percent,)" notes Fox News, "and they backed the president by a better than two-to-one margin. Fifteen percent said it was the 'most important' factor in their vote."

The storm was an Act of God. No political strategist planned it, and yet none could have invented a better boost for Obama's reputation and aid to his success. It was as if God was speaking in favor of Barack Obama's re-election, or perhaps commenting on the behavior of those involved in the campaign.

It's a Jewish belief that God helps those go in the direction they truly want to pursue. If one wishes to pursue good, he receives help from Heaven; if his desire is toward evil, his path that way is smoothed.  I don't really know what God had in mind in bringing Superstorm Sandy at that very time and place, but I know it conveys a message, and last night's election results spur our urgent need to decipher its content.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Nervous about the Election

Everywhere I go, people are confiding that they're losing sleep over the election. I didn't hear that four or eight or twelve years ago; in fact, I've never heard so many people blurt immediately that they're frightened about voting outcomes.

People I know, most of them conservatives, have a real fear of the implementation of Obamacare and its attendant tax and premium increases. They genuinely recoil at the thought of the fiscal cliff, which would devalue homes, cause businesses to go under, cost huge numbers of jobs and put our nation in jeopardy due to burdensome debt to such "frenemies" as China.

Many of my friends are religious Christians, who see the values on which our nation was founded--God-centric concepts that honor biblical direction--in peril. Foremost among these is the primacy of traditional marriage. I keep hearing in radio ads the term "homophobia" as a code for anyone who wants traditional man-woman marriage to stand as the norm. It would be an oxymoron for a gay person in my state of Washington, therefore, to reject the ballot measure approving gay marriage and dissolving all current Domestic Partnerships. Already, these partnerships are the legal equivalent of marriage, just by a different name, ie "everything but marriage." But should this measure pass, existing Domestic Partnerships cease, forcing presently registered gay couples to either marry or have no official status. What's a believing Christian or Jew or Muslim to do?

Many tell me that though they're not Mormon, they're fervently praying for the candidate who's dedicated 40 years' time and 20% of his money to furthering his good-neighbor-making faith.

Sleepless nights leading up to November 6. It's not just finances, it's values. It's not just style, it's competence. The conservatives I know see such a clear difference in principles and ability between the presidential candidates that they can't accept a loss.

I was disheartened about the Superstorm, not only feeling for the losses and hardships of those directly affected, but fearing its impact on the presidential outcome. I imagined copious views of a sympathetic president lifting photogenic children from the muck, with attention removed from his challenges in the campaign, especially questions about the handling of the Libya embassy terrorism. But now, a week after Sandy left its devastating mark on the East, there appears far more difficulty in rebounding from the storm, and so less savior-worship than expected (though a Libya coverup seems the exclusive purview of Fox News).

Democrats Are Different. I don't see the same kind of fretful reaction to this election among my Democratic friends. They're sleeping fine. In fact, some are so disenchanted with the present administration (for whom they voted last time) that they're sitting out the process all together. I predict a much-reduced Democratic turnout from four years ago. Many of these friends can't bring themselves to support Romney, but they also can't abide endorsing the disappointing Obama. That leaves the default of "skipping" this election, and feeling sanguine should others' balloting bring a change. The die-hard Democrats I know are mostly confident that they'll succeed, which leads them to relaxed nights, as well.

Still, most I know remain jumpy. My husband wrote The Odds Against Obama, a historical and logical look at election indicators that add up to a likely Romney victory. But even he is nervous, piqued by conflicting polls and signs. Until Wednesday, we suffer an undercurrent of uncertainty, the result of a heavy intuition that the results forthcoming will make more difference in our lives than any election outcomes before.