The Normalcy Bias

Posted on 30 June, 2013 by Patrick Estebe in General Security

A good friend of mine commented on the previous post “have an exit strategy at all times”, saying that the difficulty to convince people that they may have to abandon their real estate comes from the “normalcy bias”.

Quoting Wikipedia on normalcy bias:

“Not limited to, but most notably: The Nazi genocide of millions of Jews. Even after knowing friends and family were being taken against their will, the Jewish community still stayed put, and refused to believe something was “going on.” Because of the extreme nature of the situation it is understandable why most would deny it.”

“Little Sioux Scout camp in June 2008. Despite being in the middle of “Tornado Alley,” the campground had no tornado shelter to offer protection from a strong tornado.

New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. Inadequate government and citizen preparation and the denial that the levees could fail were an example of the normalcy bias, as were the thousands of people who refused to evacuate.

“The normalcy bias often results in unnecessary deaths in disaster situations. The lack of preparation for disasters often leads to inadequate shelter, supplies, and evacuation plans.”

As one of the characters says in the latest blockbuster:  “People don’t believe something can happen, until it already has”.  This would definitely explain why I have had so much trouble explaining why everyone should make evacuation preparations for security reasons.  There is a huge communication gap between the folks affected by the normalcy bias and those like me, who have no concept of normalcy.

SAILING Indeed like most sailors, I am quite foreign to the very concept of normalcy: boats most often reach their destination but they have been known to also do quite a few other things and sailors do not take anything for granted. In fact they also definitively have an exit strategy at all times in the form of safety boats, no matter how good the ship they are on is supposed to be. Most experienced captains will also make sure their crew can go through the emergency exits even with a full blackout. Sailors are immune to the normalcy bias.

Motorcycle Deaths Rise In CaliforniaBikers also appear to be immune to the normalcy bias as well, not even speaking about the gangs here; just mentioning that road travel on a motorcycle is seldom normal. Did you ever saw a biker riding and texting in the same time?  He is too busy making sure those who are texting in their cars will not run him over.   In fact bikers are caught in an interesting tactical difficulty as in any war on two fronts; safety on two wheels has much to do with going faster than the traffic, but then going faster than the traffic has a tendency to bring into the picture some cars with funny lights whose drivers have absolutely no sense of humor. And then of course there are the dragon flies that will make a blotch on the visor that blinds you just when you were accelerating significantly to pass a car and change lanes.  Bikers, like sailors are paying attention because in their world the sanction systematically follows the mistake and the death penalty applies often to infinitely small mistakes.

retouched-puertorico-0271-watermarkedThere we have it; a huge communication problem between those, unaffected by the normalcy bias, and on their toes most of the time, and their good fellow citizens who just cannot understand why on earth tomorrow would ever be different from yesterday.

The Tuareg nomads I met long ago in an interesting meeting between a seafarer and desert nomads used to say that a house is a tomb for the soul.  How can one communicate the danger of the normalcy bias to those who can simply not see how conditioned they became?

An essential step toward security would be to “get the hell out”; outdoors the normalcy bias fades quickly.  When climbing a mountain there is a deep feeling that gravity rules and that it will takes its toll in the blink of an eye given if given a chance.  Windsurfing, diving, or even simply swimming in the ocean will avoid being drowned in the normalcy bias.  Riding as mentioned before will definitely wake up the most inattentive person, or make a new statistic of her.  In fact anything that will bring your entire clan outside the living room and its flat screen monitor will also provide you a better perspective on the true nature of security.  The first step toward security is to understand and accept insecurity.


  1. Well done!

    Based on your brilliant review; to be able to execute an “exit strategy”, you must have a plan.

    Unfortunately, average people are not able to conceive such plan and need the right adviser admitting the fact of not having normalcy to structure the whole idea.

    This is probably even more challenging to find (except if they contact you).



  2. Personally I have several exit strategies. All of them need to be tested to be demonstrated as valid. And I don’t mean under a crisis state. Just fully tested. Interesting the way you illustrated ‘the gap’, or maybe the way it made me think more about the gap. I take it very much for granted, but your post illustrates to me the ever deepening depth of that gap. The couch warmers are a lost cause. Bikers, sailors, flyers, climbers, and a few others stand a chance of surviving for all the reasons you point out. But maybe that is the way it was meant to be. Darwinism at its best? There will be a distinct a culling of the herd at every crisis going forward.
    Just like New Orleans and Katrina, it wasn’t the folks who were prepared to act, and acted that were cooped up in the sports arena.

  3. When I was a very young boy, my father used to tell me simple stories about ancient time. Once we talked about the disaster that wiped off the roman city of Pompeii, and he described in very graphic, scary details what happened there during the eruption of Vesuvius during summer 79 AD.
    What struck me the most then, was the denial by the citizens of the very existence of a threat and their reluctance to give up their respective agenda of the day, despite the many signs they were receiving from the volcano.
    When I asked my dad why these guys choose to stay just another day to eventually die of suffocation or being burnt alive, instead of simply leaving as they perfectly could, he just assumed some collective blindness had turned a group of wise individuals into a herd of fools because they just faced an unusual situation they could not comprehend….

    “The first step toward security is to understand and accept insecurity.” So true!

  4. Great commentary….

    As a long time sailor, motorcyclist, and now yacht broker, its interesting to be reminded why I feel compelled to have a plan B or contingencies in place when conducting business..doing so absolutely gives me a greater sense of security and a clearer understanding on how to get a particular job done

    Approaching a transaction in this way, better ensures the client receives a higher level of service with the best possible outcome…flaws in strategy are more readily seen so adjustments can be made.

    Patrick…what are your thoughts on “Confirmation Bias” relative to security?

    • Two answers: the short one; there definitely cannot be any confirmation bias when it comes to security.
      The long answer will be in a coming post!

  5. This refusal to accept the risks that come along with reality (eg: hurricanes in FL, tornados and civil unrest) goes hand in hand with the comfortable society that we live in where everything “should be” quick & easy.

    I do not remember this attitude being present in the people I met in Romania in 1992, after having living their lives for 30 years under oppression at gun point.

    It’s really sad that we even have to have this discussion…


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