Normalcy Bias And Survival
May 18, 2014

Normalcy Bias And Survival

When I watch movies or TV shows with disasters and terrorist plots, I always wonder why people give in and follow the few with the guns. Let’s take, for example, the movie Red Dawn. Think about it, the Russian-backed Cubans (or North Koreans if you are watching the new one) take over the US with barely a fight. The movie focuses on one town and the kids who are willing to fight back. There aren’t many, though. Most of the townsfolk rather sheepishly line up and are sent to a detention camp with no fight at all.

Does this make sense? If the entire country of North Korea (24.7 million) invaded the US (316.9 million), how could they take over so easily? I used to yell at the TV or movie screen, telling people to stand up and fight.

This is how I feel in real life as well. On September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked and used as terrorist weapons here in the US. Three of them reached their objectives with no sign that any passenger fought back (notice I’m very carefully saying no sign… I hope like hell that plenty of them tried to fight back), and one went down in a field in Pennsylvania without reaching its target because the passengers on that flight were willing to fight. I’ve always wondered why more people didn’t fight.

I think I finally found my answer, both for movies and real life. It’s called normalcy bias, and most of us have problems with it.

In 2005, Time Magazine reported on a study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) where 900 survivors of the World Trade Center towers were interviewed. The average amount of time the survivors took to begin leaving the building was six minutes. Remember though, that is average. Some hung around, shutting down their computers, for over half an hour. The NIST study wasn’t focused on normalcy bias so much as evacuation science, but they found normalcy bias was a huge factor in how people react to emergency situations.

Scientists have been trying to figure out how to get massive amounts of people moving in the event of an emergency since the first atom bomb was dropped. Exit strategies, glowing lights, flame retardant materials and elaborate computer models have all been developed to find a solution for this problem. The biggest challenge, however, is normalcy bias.

In the face of certain death, some of us panic, some of us stay cool and levelheaded, and most of us… MOST of us.. become sheep. Approximately 70 percent, according to an iO9 report. This is both a good and bad thing. That 70 percent are easily led, scientists find, and tend to quiet down the 10-15 percent who lose their cool and panic. But they move slowly, going through mundane tasks and “milling.” Milling people tend to ask at least four others what is happening and what they should do about it before deciding to do anything at all. The docile and milling impede the progress of the 10-15 percent, who are acting exactly right and evacuating as they should.

For example, let’s look at the case of the worst aviation disaster in history. In March 1977, on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands, a Pan Am flight was sliced open by a KLM flight moving around 160 mph in heavy fog. Everyone in the KLM plane died immediately. Most of the people aboard the Pan Am flight survived the initial impact, and yet 326 of the 396 passengers died. They had at least 60 seconds to react before the fire reached them, and yet they didn’t. The vast majority sat in their seats waiting for someone to tell them what to do, despite the safety lecture we all hate at the beginning of the flight.

Why is this so? Why do most of us just go along? Let’s go back to the movie Red Dawn. Why did most of the town’s people passively allow themselves to be locked up in the detention camp rather than fight back?

The researchers have a theory.

Their theory is neurological in nature. It takes the human brain eight to 10 seconds to process new information when we are calm. The more stress you add, however, the slower this process becomes. If we don’t have any familiar behaviors to fall back on, we freeze like a deer in the headlights.

“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.’”

I also have a theory. The threat is either not personal enough, or too personal. In the case of a disaster, it isn’t personal enough. People don’t comprehend that their own personal safety is at risk until it is too late. In the case of the flights on 9-11, or the movie .. people become TOO aware of their own mortality and it makes them freeze.

The researchers say the way to combat normalcy bias is with preparation, whether physical or mental. Paying attention to emergency exits, knowing evacuation routes, and mentally going over them in your head is enough to give you the edge when it comes time to break out of your normalcy bias and survive.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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