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Normalcy bias: this is fine?

Last Updated 2022/04/12

A recent tragic fire on a plane in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport killed 41 passengers including 2 children. Many passenger-recorded videos emerged soon after the event and served to highlight just how terrifying and quickly a disaster can strike. One of the most startling aspects of the tragedy was the reports of passengers calmly collecting luggage as they prepared to evacuate, leading to a knock-on delay that was certainly responsible for some of the eventual victims not being able to escape in time.

The initial public response to this is understandably incredulous and angry: how could people be so selfish and inconsiderate? The answer lies in Normalcy bias.

Normalcy bias is the tendency for individuals to underestimate the potential or scale for a disaster, even when they are in the midst of one. Reports by survivors of 9/11 contain incredible stories of people wandering around in an apparent daze after the first plane hit the tower, consulting with each other about whether to leave or not.

"I was looking for something to take with me. I remember I took my book. Then I kept looking around for other stuff to take. It was like I was in a trance," - 9/11 survivor Elia Zedeno

The reason for this procrastination lies in the way our brains process information and then fall back on habitual behaviours. There is a delay at the best of times when we try and parse new information, but when we are stressed that delay increases dramatically. If we have no set or practiced behaviours for emergency situations then we tend to just initiate the most easily accessible behaviour (i.e. what we do every normal time we disembark a plane).

20% of small businesses fail in their first year, 30% of small businesses fail in their second year, and 50% of small businesses fail after five years in business. Eventually, 70% of small business owners fail in their 10th year in business. Could it be that normalcy bias engages towards the end-stages of these companies, and that disaster may be averted if this is recognised? A startling example is the 2008 financial crisis which was propagated by the normalcy bias that real-estate was somehow protected from economic downturns (“nothing is as safe as houses”).

Prevention of normalcy bias is usually geared towards natural disasters, but even a small business failing is a disaster for everyone involved. Have you thought of the following for your business?

  • Preparation - What could go wrong (new competitor, customer dissatisfaction, seasonal changes)?
  • Warning - Do you have clear ways to measure negative events and make sure you or employees are notified (i.e. monitoring social media for customer complaints, keyword searches for discovering new competitors)
  • Impact - Do you have a prepared statement or mitigation tactic if there is a significant customer backlash or change in demand?
  • Aftermath - Do you have enough cash reserve to survive an impact or are you investing in growth under the belief that everything will remain safe?

It is also very important to not overreact, but to just be prepared. Most deviations from normal do not result in disaster, but don’t fall victim to another popular bias “The Planning Fallacy” when considering mitigating actions against it!

Adam Sykes