Normalcy Bias: Why the Sleeping Giant Is Hitting the Snooze Button

Glenn Beck said something on Fox & Friends this morning that I thought was pretty insightful; many Americans are in a state of shock at all that is happening and are simply, perhaps understandably, focusing on things within their control . . . while the entire country, even the world, to quote Beck, “is on fire.”  It’s called “normalcy bias” and “is also known as the ostrich effect. It is also sometimes known as the incredulity response and analysis paralysis” (source).  While most often bandied about by End Times proselytizers and survivalists, it is taken seriously by agencies responsible for emergency response, disaster preparedness, and public safety.

In a crisis, our instincts can be our undoing. William Morgan, who directs the exercise-psychology lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has studied mysterious scuba accidents in which divers drowned with plenty of air in their tanks. It turns out that certain people experience an intense feeling of suffocation when their mouths are covered. They respond to that overwhelming sensation by relying on their instinct, which is to rip out whatever is in their mouths. For scuba divers, unfortunately, it is their oxygen source. On land, that would be a perfect solution.

Why do our instincts sometimes backfire so dramatically? Research on how the mind processes information suggests that part of the problem is a lack of data. Even when we’re calm, our brains require 8 to 10 sec. to handle each novel piece of complex information. The more stress, the slower the process. Bombarded with new information, our brains shift into low gear just when we need to move fast. We diligently hunt for a shortcut to solve the problem more quickly. If there aren’t any familiar behaviors available for the given situation, the mind seizes upon the first fix in its library of habits–if you can’t breathe, remove the object in your mouth.

That neurological process might explain, in part, the urge to stay put in crises. “Most people go their entire lives without a disaster,” says Michael Lindell, a professor at the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. “So, the most reasonable reaction when something bad happens is to say, This can’t possibly be happening to me.” Lindell sees the same tendency, which disaster researchers call normalcy bias, when entire populations are asked to evacuate. (source)

Normalcy bias is what caused the people who were in the staircases at the World Trade Center buildings, on the way down to safety, to turn around and go back to turn off their computers or to get their briefcases or travel bags.  Some survived (those who assumed they’d just go back and get it later); others did not.

Normalcy bias is a term that describes a human reaction to horror and tragedy, to danger and disaster.  It explains, in no small part, why so many Germans just ignored the fact that their Jewish, gay, and otherwise “unsuitable,” non-“Arayan” neighbors kept disappearing and why they ignored rumors of the concentration camps and the genocide taking place right under their noses.  The horror of it was just too much, so they worried about something else, anything else.  Whatever their country’s leader told them to worry about.  And that’s what is happening here in America, mostly among conservatives (but also among many on the left), normalcy bias.

The world is in an unbelievable state of disarray, and we’re staring at it all, all the various pieces of a big, horrifying puzzle, and we’re wondering if we should go back for our purses, grab our briefcases, or to turn off our computers.  America is being fundamentally transformed, steadily and with alarming precision right before our eyes–almost as if there were a larger picture, that of a fully-transformed America at the end, and we’re talking about saving our purses and a bit of electricity.  We woke up, that famous awakened sleeping and silent giant that we were only a year ago, saw what was happening, could not compute it . . . and hit the snooze button.  Getting a few more minutes of peaceful, oblivious sleep seems so important, we need our energy for 2012, or to fight for life, or oh anything but deal with what is happening, so we reflexively slap that snooze button.  Normalcy bias.

And we’re all doing it to some degree.  Some of us are checking out completely, turning off the news, not reading blogs, ignoring reality (been there, done that, earned a couple million in FarmVille).  Some of us are focused on abortion, some on the 2012 GOP primaries, some on smaller pieces of the puzzle like net neutrality or the government takeover of health care (been there, done that, too).  As if any of this will matter when the building collapses.  Some of us have made a conscious decision to stop paying attention, to focus on . . . anything else.  But the world keeps descending into chaos, America is under attack from within and without.

Disaster is all around us.  It’s in the contradictory aims of the far left to destroy America but to simultaneously use American money and resources to change the entire world order.  It’s in the calls of international, U. S.-based “international” unions and assorted communists to give every citizen of the world a “vote” in American presidential elections (the assumption being that America will somehow stay important to anyone other than Americans–and those who want to see us all dead–when they’re finished with the fundamental transformation, will somehow be the world leader that they don’t want us to be–don’t try to figure that one out, it’s mind-boggling in its myopia, sense of superiority, and ignorance), and it’s in the stated desire of powerful leftists to literally wipe out capitalism (again, doing this would destroy not only the U. S. and our economy but that of the entire world, including non- and anti-capitalist nations that depend on us for one thing or another, be that financial aid or military support or the intervention of our humanitarian agencies like the Red Cross or the Peace Corps).

It’s in the stripping away of our rights, one by one, the nationalization of not only our healthcare but of other private industries that are “working with” the government “for a better tomorrow” (i.e. not unlike those Jews, hoping to be spared perhaps, who helped the Nazis round up other Jews), the police state for which we’re being primed (it’s no accident that the executive branch is making Americans submit to unconstitutional searches and arrests in our nation’s airports, nor that they’ve already announced intentions to roll this out to every public venue from buses and trains to sporting and concert arenas to shopping malls), and the new regulations (they can’t get laws passed through even a democrat majority-holding Congress, so they have to use federal–executive branch–agencies) that are crippling Americans, tying our hands, shutting us off from one another and from the truth.

Is this alarmist?  Nope, it’s all there, we know about the bits and pieces–heck, this blog and many others chronicle all of these and more, but we’re experiencing normalcy bias.  The buildings have been hit, we were in the stairwell, but we tell ourselves:  Naw, that’s crazy, this is not happening at all.  It’s all in our head.  Or it doesn’t mean, can’t possibly mean, what logic tells us it means.

Now where did I put my purse?

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17 thoughts on “Normalcy Bias: Why the Sleeping Giant Is Hitting the Snooze Button

  1. We are being bombarded on all sides. We who pay attention are overwhelmed at the ineptness of our leadership's reactions. We are also absolutely flabbergasted at the MSM unwillingness to report actual news arrived at by thoughtful investigation.

    I believe it to be part of a grand scheme perpetrated by the left. Add up the lack of pertinent news, quality education, and a very dishonest Washington and it becomes an unethical politician's greatest ally. We must be forever vigilant and continue to speak out.

  2. I've experienced this phenomenon and it's very strange. I was watching an air show and this light aircraft was flying around, doing tricks, all as you'd expect ….. anyway the engine started sounding odd. It flew on, then sharply descended at 45 degrees. I didn't hear a crash but there was a huge plume of smoke coming from behind the trees. And ….. I turned to my husband and smiled and said “That was a stunt wasn't it? It's just a joke?” And I couldn't be convinced until I'd seen the item on the news that the plane had actually crashed. It was the oddest feeling – your head and eyes and sense of reality is all in conflict. The pilot, who sadly didn't survive, was a hero ….. managed to crash in a field and avoid a nearby supermarket and housing area.

    Now I attribute this phenomenon to AGW denial rather than AGW acceptance …. but you knew that ;o)

  3. Good post BTW – and I think all of us, left, right and centre in politics, are experiencing this. The world is a confusing place and we cling on to whatever makes sense.

  4. I know someone that grew up in Africa under a very brutal regime. I tell him things that are happening in this country and he just brushes me off. His belief is that it can't happen in this country. When I ask him why he never has an answer that makes sense.

    The same thing with the SEIU protesters going to private homes of bankers. People just don't want to believe it even though thy put the stuff on their website.

  5. Fuzzy,

    You been doing your homework girl! That's why Bro and I keep begging people to “WAKE UP” and smell the coffee!

    Trouble is that smell is not the coffee brewing, it's the whole damn world on fire and we have to put it out before it consumes us all. Kind of reminds me of the scene in “The Titanic” where the ship is sinking and the band played on!

    We are in really big doo doo, but it is not too late. Unlike the Titanic, this ship can be saved, we just need people in charge who CAN and WANT to right the ship!

    I hope you are all stocking up on food, it could take a while before things get better.

    Lock & Load!!!
    Sons & Daughters of Liberty Unite!!!

  6. Fascinating post.

    Also… let's not underestimate how many people in the US are simply not paying attention. Seriously. They know there's a recession, they know who our president is, … that's about it. They are unwilling and/or unable to keep up with the true state of politics and our country/state/city. Some of my friends fall into this camp unfortunately. If people's own lives are going fairly ok, don't underestimate how much they are able to tune out the world around them because they think it doesn't matter or doesn't affect them. Sad.

  7. I think it starts from an early age. The public schools don't just dumb people down, they reward those that embrace conformist thought and punish those who do not.

  8. @Odie, it is entirely overwhelming, so much is happening in so many areas, so fast, that it's little wonder that we can't compute it all (much less figure out what to do about it). But we're not the first nation's citizenry in the history of the world to sit in shell-shock as our country is destroyed from within. Most failed nations failed from within, with the populace doing little or nothing about it.

    @CL, I had a couple friends who were in NYC on 9/11, and they said much the same thing. It didn't seem real, it was like watching a movie, they didn't know what to do–even as they understood, as did most of watching on television across the nation, that the second plane meant a terror attack.

    heh, yeah, I know where you stand on AGW, Ang. :p And you're right, this is a human, not a political or ideological reaction to disaster.

    @JACG, that “it can't happen here” thing is very complex, but it is one reason, I think anyway, that people aren't more worried about what is happening, or if they are worried, haven't become active in trying to stop it. America is like the Titanic, unsinkable–even the leftists who are flexing American muscle to restructure the world order don't understand that it's American freedom and capitalism that have made it wealthy. They don't accept, somehow, that destroying the very thing that made us so successful as a nation will destroy us.

    It's really bizarre, actually, and something that I often puzzle over. If you listen to them, every one of them thinks that America will somehow come through the other side, along with other western nations, to still provide everything for the entire world . . . while having and making and being “equal” with that world in every way, including economically. Like our wealth manifests out of the ether and is not the product of our free market capitalism. Like the fact that every socialist and communist country is dirt poor (except the ruling class) and dependent on capitalism for so much isn't a fact. Truly bizarre.

  9. @Adrienne, thank you so much! You are too kind. 🙂

    @Zilla, woohoo! “wide awake and seriously ticked off” is what we need. And thank you so much for the linkage. 🙂

    @L, it is rather like the Titanic! Think about how the reports all say that so many of the lifeboats were launched with less than half their capacity, one with 10 or 12 people and they each held 40 to 65 people. People froze, or didn't believe the ship would sink, and according to some reports, even went back to bed! Sounds very much like normalcy bias.

    @Lisa thank you! And yes, I know that a lot of people don't have a clue what is going on, and when we get through this, I hope that's one thing that we, as a people, learn, that being a responsible citizen and knowing what is going in our government–it has so much, more and more each day, power over us!) is part of being an American. That said, though, those of us who are aware need to start thinking of what we're going to do in a variety of scenarios. Disaster preparedness includes having a plan beforehand, a form of reference that can help combat normalcy bias by giving us a response that isn't going back to bed.

    @Trestin, I see what you are saying, but I'm not sure that our public schools are responsible. This seems to be a human response and has happened time and again. I mentioned the German response to the Holocaust in my post, but the Jewish response was equally inexplicable in some ways. Nazis would line up hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, over ravines and mass graves, and sure, they had guns, but everyone was going to die anyway, why didn't they fight back? Rush the firing squads en masse? They just walked in long lines to their deaths. That's inexplicable to me, but if something like that were tried here, we'd all, Americans all, submit, too. Just follow the herd, not believing that we were about to be slaughtered. Or the majority would, anyway. Thirteen million or more were murdered in cold blood by a fraction that number of people. I'm not saying the public could have defeated Hitler's army, but they didn't even try. No rebel groups, no militia, hardly any organized resistance at all. Indeed, the German people were wildly supportive of Hitler … and they knew what he was doing, they just didn't want to believe it. I know it's way more complex than this, but it's something worth thinking about as the world fires rage.

  10. Great thought provoking post. You put it right there in front of us. Most of us already knew it but seeing it in black and white(in this case black and yellow)makes it more real.
    What I find amazing similar to Nazi German that people whether they know what is happening or not are reluctant to speak about it. I guess that is what the term 'Normalcy bias' you are referring to means.
    There was an elderly woman at a Tea Party Rally I attended once, who was from Poland and was interviewed.She stated she remembers this is exactly how it started there and how she came here for freedom and is worried we are going down that same path.
    Imagine that an actual first hand account.
    I think I can find the video and will post it when I do.
    On a positive note our numbers are strong and we have to remain diligent. In Germany they have very strict laws in place as to not let what happened there ever happen again. I am just hoping we can nip this in the bud before it's too late.
    Thanks for putting into words what we can now hopefully translate to those in living in oblivion.

  11. I think most of us know what's going on. I'm thinking about 2 million people that marched on DC that would have been 100 million if the rest of us didn't have to work…

    We just don't have any way to do anything about it outside of elections. Unless we can convince the military command to march on DC with us.

    So I don't agree with Glenn. As usual.

    My personal view of what the “problem is” – Bailouts. Central Banks and Politicians trying to steer us out of the problems.

    And the solution is to let the weak fail, where ever they are and let the strong come in a take their place.

    This could be over now, but like the Great Depression, it may just be starting.

  12. @Lisa, thanks! And yes, that vid is a great example of what I'm talking about. A lot of immigrants from communist countries, particularly the former Soviet Union and eastern European countries are literally stunned that we're so complacent when they really do see that we're on the same path that destroyed their nations. Not sure what we can really do about it, though. But that's part of what they said, too, in Germany (when it was still a republic). It's worrying, for sure. I appreciate your taking the time to find that vid and posting it here. 🙂

    @Kid, I do agree with Glenn on occasion–if I think he's right. But then, I've been known to agree with *gasp* democrats if I think they're right about something. Anyway, you're right we have only elections. And that's what we're about as a nation, so it's all good. 🙂 It'd be funny in alternate universe if BO did try to get the military to fire on civilian Americans now that he's threatened their paychecks for politics and abortions. Some CIC. I can't help but wonder if they wouldn't do what the Cambridge PD when it came time to endorse a candidate for Senate last January. Those cops who “acted stupidly” endorsed Scott Brown. And their chief used to be Coakley's husband. No crap. Anyway, BO just runs his mouth, and has no idea that it has consequences in the the real world. I suppose we can thank God for that. I think that BO will do what he can to get the economy churning again before 2012, some crazy stuff like using our reserves to bring down gas prices or some other temporary “fix” that will make people feel good enough to vote for him again and that won't have any long-term affect on his destroy America now project.

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