How to limit your Normalcy Bias ?

By | December 8, 2013
The frog does not feel the temperature of the water slowly rising, resulting in being boiled alive. (Not this one!)

The frog does not feel the temperature of the water slowly rising, resulting in being boiled alive. (Not this one!)

The big problem with normalcy bias is that it blinds us to paradigm shifts. – Resman 2013

Normalcy Bias in a nutshell :

The normalcy bias can be imagined like a bell curve graph, with a long tail on the right hand side. The start and  the top of the curve are where our sensitivity is the highest, the end of the curve is where we become accustomed to certain events.

At the start of the curve, the environment presents certain information and we become more sensitive to it and other related items.Example:  If we hear the word hamburger we are more sensitive to works like ketchup, bread and MacDonalds. If you are reading about the stock market, a reminder that you needed to sell a particular stock pops in your head. When the same nerve keeps getting stimulated time and time again we loose sensitivity to the subject. When people live next to a busy road they do not listen to the traffic anymore.

This can lead us to see things and think about events in a biased fashion. We become less sensitive and passive to take action. The effects can be compounded when the environment goes into hyper stimulation on some issues.

One clear example of the Normalcy Bias that gripped Europeans before WWII.

Word War II started in 1st September 1939.

(With the benefit of hindsight)

  • 1933 October 19 : Germany leaves the League of Nations.
  • 1933 May 2: Hitler outlaws trade unions
  • 1934 August 8 : Members of the Wehrmacht begin swearing a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler instead of to the German constitution.
  • 1936 December 1 : Hitler makes it mandatory for all males between the ages 10-18 to join the Hitler Youth.
  • 1937 December 11 : Italy leaves the League of Nations.
  • 1938 March 13 Austria is annexed by Nazi Germany.
  • 1939 March 31 The United Kingdom and France offer a guarantee of Polish independence.

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The above where a series of publicly visible events which culminated in the invasion of Poland by Germany on September 1st 1939. A country, cannot gather the military power needed for such a huge operation without going unnoticed. The people in Europe could have prepared themselves to bailout from Europe at a moments notice given their threat-o-meter should have been marking red. Do you see the link between Normalcy Bias and one’s own resilience plans ?

The problem of looking at events through the “Now Prism” ?

We interpret events according to our rationality / logic and our experiences. The recent past plays an important role in how we set our threat-o-meter. Imagine someone starting a new job working on high tension electricity lines, the first week must be nerve racking, after six months, mounting a high tension cable becomes a normal action, without over analysis of the sub actions that need to be done.

An experiment in Normalcy Bias :

Imagine an experiment involving two men who volunteer to be cut off from the rest of the world for 8 weeks. They both have a family – wife and two kids, have the same education and are both unemployed. They have been promised 5000 US Dollars at the end of the exercise.


Joe and Mike have been selected. They have been told the experiment is to test the effects of isolation for a planned Mar mission. Mike spends 7 weeks watching “fake news”, the news is about a serious of military conflicts that occur between his country and a neighbouring one. He is not aware the news is fake. The incidents start rather small but continue to escalate to the use of artillery. Both Mike and Joe live in the south of the country and they are not affected directly by the events. In the last 48 hours both Joe and Mike are provided with a fake news paper . The news paper details the use of artillery and war speeches by the leaders of both countries. In the last 12 hours, they are both given a sum of 5000 dollars on a VISA card and a limited connection to the internet. No news sites.

In your opinion

What would Mike do with the 5k?

What would Joe do with the 5k ?

How would they emotionally react ?

What Resman would do:

If I was Joe, and out of the blue I read an article that there was an artillery strike on my country and that the president is beating the war drums I would pack and leave the country in a heart beat. Aware of the possible repercussions to my family and self. If I was Mike, I would probably linger and procrastinate to take action (bug in place?)  as this incident looked at from the prism of now would not make it look like a life threatening event.

Normalcy biases in Europe at the moment (Dec 2013):

In Europe, we already have had a few crisis, and are constantly hammerd with terms like austerity, bank failures, bail ins ,bail outs, unemployment, PIIGS, Greek Crisis, Civil servant strikes and bank deposit confiscation. This make us numb to the seriousness of the events that follow, along the time line of a particular story. When we do we wake up to the seriousness of the problem, the water will have already boiled and we will have no energy left to jump out of the pan!

What to do to control Normalcy Bias ?

This graph compares the search terms :

  • Spain Unemployment
  • Greek Crisis
  • Euro Collapse

Why did the searches for Euro Collapse taper off ? Has the Euro become stronger or is it our of the news for the moment ? Does it make sense for people to stop searching for this topic on Google just because it is out of the news ?

Action Points:

Think about Where are we now ? What are we taking for granted ? What does the collection of the recent economic and political events result in ?


If you where part of the experiment above Mike or Joe , what would you do with the 5k ?


Image Copyright: License by jronaldlee