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.

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