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This can’t be happening to me

Think back to any movie you’ve seen involving a disaster, whether it was a tsunami or a plane crash. More than likely, the footage of the actual disaster was accompanied by hordes of people screaming and running for their lives. As with many Hollywood depictions of various events, however, the reality of things is quite different. More often than not, people caught in the middle of a disaster actually experience a normalcy bias (aka analysis paralysis), a state of disbelief caused by underestimating the probability or scale of a dangerous situation, causing denial once it is actually happening. As a result, rather than fleeing the site of the disaster, the affected remain dazed and take much more time than optimally needed to get out.

A retrospective look at the evacuation situation of 9/11 provides a great example of this bias in effect. A study done by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), involving interviews with 900 survivors of the attack, revealed that it took them 6 minutes on average to make the decision to head down the stairs following the attack[1]. Moreover, the range was quite broad, suggesting some individuals were clearly much more affected by this bias than others. At least 70% of the survivors also talked with others before attempting to exit[1] in a process known as milling. According to a 2001 study done by Thomas Drabek on this subject, when people are asked to evacuate prior to a natural disaster, the majority first check with four or more sources, such as friends or news outlets, before taking any action[2]. A reason for this behaviour could be the cognitive dissonance that causes one to dismiss a disaster for as long as possible, even if asked to evacuate, while seeking reassurance from others that it’s a false alarm.

Figures show that the normalcy bias is a fairly common phenomenon. Around 70% of people experience it in a disaster, while the other 15% break down and the remaining 15% remain collected and act efficiently[3]. On one hand, this inactive behaviour can sometimes help calm those 15% in frenzy, but on the other, it can hinder the progress of the ones remaining level-headed and trying to follow the right procedures.

So why do so many of us act this way? One explanation is our brain’s difficulty with dealing with new complex data, needing 8 to 10 seconds to process it when we are calm[4]. This time further increases the more we are under stress and unable to find a solution. Therefore, when we are caught in the completely unfamiliar and unexpected situation that is a disaster, our brain doesn’t have an answer on how to react that it can retrieve, so the only thing remaining to do is to simply deny the disaster altogether and freeze. The psychologist Daniel Johnson saw a clear example of this in a study he did in the 1970s, where he asked individuals to perform tasks that were simple, but not familiar to them. He observed that 45% of the individuals became motionless for 30 or more seconds, unable to react to the novel information[5].

Although this state of paralysis can be considered to be detrimental in most situations, it may have actually been useful in the past. Predators are less likely to eat prey that is motionless, as it is associated with being sick. Therefore, our body abandoning the fight or flight response and automatically freezing instead could have helped us survive[4]. It is unfortunate, however, that this biological response does not translate well to situations such as escaping burning airplanes.

Due to the apparent danger of this bias, significant attempts are made to counteract it. Fire drills, airplane safety briefings, various safety booklets are all there to increase our store of information so we don’t end up in this state of shock. Yet this often doesn’t solve the problem of making the information feel personal to us. Right now this is as evident as ever in the reactions towards the coronavirus in Italy. Most have likely felt a sense of distance towards the issue as it was largely developing on another continent, and underestimated the chance of the virus reaching Italy, despite quite a few cases having already been found in Europe. As soon as it was reported that a large number of people have been infected in Italy, it had become apparent just how underprepared the average person had been, as people rushed to the supermarkets and pharmacy shops to stock up on food, masks and disinfectants.

It may be true that we cannot prepare for our reaction to every single situation, but simply being aware of our biases can be helpful. So if you want to reduce the effects of the normalcy bias, it wouldn’t harm to practice being objective in any unfamiliar situation you may find yourself in.

Alisa Ignatova

[1] U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Technology Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology. (2005). Final report on the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Gaithersburg, MD.
[2] Drabek, T. E. (2001). Disaster Warning and Evacuation Responses by Private Business Employees. Disasters25(1), 76–94. doi: 10.1111/1467-7717.00163
[3] Inglis-Arkell, E. (2015, December 16). The frozen calm of normalcy bias.
[4] Ripley, A. (2005, April 25). How to Get Out Alive.
[5] U.S. Govt. Print. Off. (1977). Aviation safety (aircraft passenger education–the missing link in air safety): hearings before the Subcommittee on Investigations and Review of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninety-fifth Congress, first session, July 12, 13, and 14, 1977. Washington.

Further readings:,9171,1053663-1,00.html

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