Normality Bias: What It Is And How It Affects Us

Normality bias

Cognitive biases are “traps” of the mind that make us deviate from “objective” reality and lead us to errors when deciding on certain situations or proposing effective solutions to problems.

One of these biases is the normality bias., which makes us downplay emergency situations and their possible effects. In this article we will see what exactly this bias consists of, what consequences it entails, why it occurs and how we can combat it.

Normality bias: what does it consist of?

The normality bias is a cognitive bias that It makes us believe, irrationally, that nothing bad will ever happen to us because it has never happened to us.. That is to say, everything will always be “normal” and nothing will break that normality. This bias is activated in emergency situations or disasters, as we will see below.

Basically, people with the normality bias express difficulties (or even the inability) to react to situations that they have never experienced before (which are usually traumatic, dangerous or emergency). This occurs because they underestimate the possibility of such a disaster occurring, and once it occurs, they underestimate its possible effects.

In other words, it would be that tendency to believe that everything will work as it normally does, that is, with everyday normality, without unforeseen events. It is estimated that around 70% of people have a normality bias in emergency or disaster situations.

Opposite bias

As an interesting fact, saying that the bias opposite to the normality bias is the so-called inclination towards negativity, which would be precisely that tendency to believe and think that bad things will happen to us.

It would also mean focusing much more on the bad things than the good, tending to be negative or pessimistic at all times. Therefore, this bias is not adaptive either, because it turns us into pessimistic people focused on thinking that everything bad will come.

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Bias in emergency situations

Normality bias can appear in emergency or disaster situations; Let’s put ourselves in a position to understand it better: let’s imagine that we have never experienced anything too traumatic, or that we have never been exposed to an emergency situation.

What will happen when we encounter one of them and manifest the normality bias? That it will probably be difficult for us to believe that it is really an emergency, and the situation will not seem “real” to us. Our brain will have activated this bias, through which it will analyze the novel and stressful situation as if it were not really so.and as if it were something normal.

Thus, this bias can be counterproductive in emergency situations, since if in a situation like this, our mind makes us believe that the emergency is not real (or that “it’s no big deal”), we will not put in place the necessary resources to cope with this situation, we will not be able to help and we will also be in danger.

In this sense, then, the normality bias is neither very adaptive nor effective for survival.

Consequences of bias

Thus, in emergency situations (for example a fire, a call for help from someone, a robbery…), if our mind activates the normality bias, we will underestimate that situation, believing that it is not that serious, that it is not real or that it will not lead to harmful effects.

Furthermore, the normality bias prevents us from preparing (both physically and mentally) for the possibility of suffering a catastrophe.

Another consequence of the normality bias, as we already mentioned, is the inability to face the situation in an adaptive way, which means that we do not put in place the necessary resources to face it; that we do not mobilize, we do not ask for help, we do not help, etc.

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Through this bias, our mind is unconsciously sending us the following message: “If a disaster has never happened here before, it doesn’t have to happen now.”.

On the other hand, people with this bias, when faced with a novel and/or dangerous situation, interpret the warning signs that indicate such danger, in a totally optimistic way, downplaying their importance and also taking advantage of any ambiguity in the context to understand that the situation “is not as serious as it seems.”

This is a mistake and can put us in danger; Let us remember that biases usually lead to inadequate, ineffective or irrational processing of information, and that end up giving rise to deviant, erroneous or dysfunctional judgments or beliefs in us. This is also what happens, then, with the normality bias.

When bias does not appear

What happens when we do not show the bias of normality in emergency situations? Many things can happen, since each person reacts differently.

There are people who mobilize more easily in emergency situations; Others, on the other hand, become blocked and have difficulty deciding what to do more or less quickly (which does not mean that they manifest the normality bias). And so on, since in unforeseen situations, it is not easy to anticipate how each person will act.

An American journalist, Amanda Ripley, studied people’s responses to emergency or disaster situations.and found the following: according to her, there are three phases of response when we react to a disaster: the first phase is denial (denying that this is happening; we could even frame here, the bias of normality), the second is deliberation (think: what do I do now? how do I act?), and the third is the decisive moment (to act or not to act).

Each person progresses through these three phases in a different way; There are people who stay in the first, others in the second, and finally some in the third (where they move to action, to mobilization).

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A hypothesis has been proposed to explain the origin of the normality bias. This hypothesis mentions the way in which the brain processes new information; According to her, stress would decrease the probability of adequately processing information.

It is also interesting to know that even when the brain is calm, it takes between 8 and 10 seconds to process new information.

Thus, trying to explain it in a fairly summarized way, in the bias of normality, the brain would have difficulty finding an “acceptable” response to what is happeningand therefore would end up developing just the opposite idea, which is that “nothing relevant happens” or “nothing worrying”.

How to combat the normality bias?

Surely the best way to combat this bias is to educate ourselves that it can happen to us, but also that we can avoid it, if we are aware of that possibility. Thinking rationally and realistically, although it is not always easy, can help us.

On the other hand, different responses have been proposed, which are structured in four phases or stages, to combat the normality bias (referred to on a large scale). These consist of:

1. Preparation

In this first stage, it is recognized that there is a possibility of a disaster. Plans are designed to deal with them in case they happen..

2. Warning or alert

It is reported that a catastrophe is happening (unambiguously), so that people are aware of the seriousness of the situation and can begin to mobilize.

3. Impact

Emergency plans are activated; Emergency, rescue and relief teams intervene. That is, you begin to act.

4. Consequences

An attempt is made to reestablish the balance that has been broken as a result of the catastrophe. Necessary post-disaster relief and supplies are provided.

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