Normality bias: what it is and how it affects us

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

One of these biases is the normality bias, This makes us minimize emergency situations and their possible effects. In this article, we’ll take a look at exactly what this bias is, what its consequences are, why it occurs, and how we can combat it.

    Normality bias: what does it consist of?

    Normality bias is a cognitive bias that it makes us create, irrationally, that nothing bad will ever happen to us because it has never happened to us. In other words, everything will always be “normal” and nothing will break with this normality. This bias is activated in the face of emergencies or disasters, as we will see below.

    Basically, people who have the normality bias show difficulty (or even inability) to react to situations they have never experienced before (which are usually traumatic, dangerous or urgent). This is because they underestimate the possibility of such a catastrophe happening, and once it does, they underestimate its possible effects.

    In other words, it would be this tendency to believe that everything will work as usual, that is, with daily normality, without contingencies. It is estimated that around 70% of people have normalcy bias in emergency or disaster situations.

    opposite bias

    Interestingly, to say that the bias opposite to the normality bias is the so-called inclination to negativity, which would be precisely this tendency to believe and think that bad things will happen to us.

    It would also be focusing on the bad things a lot more than the good ones, tending to always be negative or pessimistic. So this bias is also not adaptive, because it makes us pessimistic, thinking that all the evil will come.

    Bias in emergency situations

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

    What will happen when we meet one of them and manifest through normality? That it will probably be difficult for us to believe that this is really an emergency and that the situation will not appear “real” to us. Our brain will have activated this bias, which will analyze the new and stressful situation as if it wasn’t really, And as if it was a normal thing.

    Thus, this bias can be counterproductive in emergency situations, because if in such a situation our mind makes us believe that the emergency is not real (or that “there is not”) ), we will not deploy the necessary resources to deal with this situation, we will not be able to help and we will also be in danger.

    In that sense, then, the normality bias is not very adaptive, to say the least, nor effective for survival.

    Low consequences

    Thus, in the face of emergency situations (for example a fire, a cry for help from someone, theft …), if our mind activates the bias of normality, we will underestimate this situation, believing that it is not is so serious, that it is not real or that it will not cause ill effects.

    In addition, the normality bias it prevents us from preparing (physically and mentally) for the possibility of experiencing a disaster.

    Another consequence of the decline of normality, as we have already mentioned, is the inability to manage the situation adaptively, which means that we do not put in place the necessary resources to deal with it; that we don’t mobilize, we don’t ask for help, we don’t help, etc.

    Through this, our mind unconsciously sends us the following message: “If disaster has never happened here before, now it must not happen”.

    On the other hand, people with this bias, faced with the new situation and / or danger, interpret the warning signs that indicate this danger, in a totally optimistic way, remaining important and also taking advantage of any ambiguity of the context. to understand that the situation “is not as bad as it seems”.

    This is a mistake and can put us in danger; remember that prejudices usually lead inadequate, ineffective or irrational processing of information, And it ends up creating in us deviations, erroneous or dysfunctional judgments or beliefs. This is also the case with the normality bias.

    When the bias does not appear

    What happens when we don’t show the normality bias in the face of emergencies? Lots of things can happen because everyone reacts differently.

    There are people who mobilize more easily in the face of emergencies; others, on the other hand, get stuck and have difficulty deciding what to do more or less quickly (which does not mean that they manifest the bias of normality). And so on, because faced with unforeseen situations, it is not easy to anticipate how everyone will act.

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

    Each person progresses differently through these three phases; there are people who stay in the first, others in the second, and finally some in the third (where we take action, mobilize).

    the causes

    A hypothesis has been proposed to explain the origin of the decrease in normality. This hypothesis mentions how the brain processes new information; according to her, stress reduces the likelihood of processing information correctly.

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

    So, by trying to explain it in a fairly concise way, through the bias of normality, the brain would have a hard time finding an “acceptable” answer to what is going onAnd that’s why I would end up developing just the opposite idea, and that is that “nothing relevant” or “not at all worrisome” is happening.

      How to fight against the bias of normality?

      The best way to fight this bias is certainly to mentalize what can happen to us, but also to avoid it, if we are aware of this possibility. Thinking rationally and realistically, even if it is not always easy, can help us.

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

      1. Preparation

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

      2. Notes or alert

      It is reported that a disaster occurs (unambiguously), so that people are aware of the seriousness of the situation and can start to mobilize.

      3. Impact

      Emergency plans are activated; emergency, rescue and rescue teams are involved. In other words, the action begins.

      4. Consequences

      An attempt is underway to restore the balance that was upset as a result of the disaster. Post-disaster supplies and assistance are provided.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Morales, JF (2007). Social psychology. Published by SA McGraw-Hill / Interamericana de España
      • Myers, DG (1995). Psychology social. Ed. McGraw-Hill, Mexico.
      • World Health Organization. (2003). Mental health in emergencies. Geneva: Department of Mental Health and Addiction / World Health Organization.
      • Rodríguez, J., Davoli, Z., and Pérez, R. (2006). A practical guide to mental health in disasters. Iris, institutional repository for the exchange of information. Pan American Health Organization.

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