Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Reflecting on 'normalcy bias'

In an opinion piece in today’s The Star, in a piece entitled, ‘’Everything’s fine’: we tend to avoid thoughts of danger. Is this why we disagree so much on the pandemic?, we read:

As a doctor who is interested both in mindfulness and metacognition—how we think—I spend time helping other clinicians develop a deeper awareness about their own thought processes. This isn’t usually a hard sell, when you consider that most doctors live in fear of making mistakes that will harm of kill patients, and many errors in medicine trace to thought process problems. But one of our greatest cognitive vulnerabilities is the fact that our minds don’t necessarily like to think about problems that suggest our safety-or someone else’s is in serious peril. In the face of these types of threats, as with the pandemic, we’re all mostly hard-wired with a tendency for our minds to whisper seductively to us, Everything’s fine…. This is one aspect of what is known as the normalcy bias. The normalcy bias can mean we don[t even want to talk about the fact that we have a normalcy bias, which can quickly become a problem in the early stages of an emergency—the stage where our choices will make the most dramatic difference. The normalcy bias is so powerful is has to be programmed out of us through a learned skill called situational awareness if we want to respond effectively to an emergency…In medicine, there are two questions that are protective against cognitive error: ‘What else could this be?’ and ‘How do I know that?’ The key is applying these questions to counter the normalcy bias, not to give it a boost.

Her public tutorial, coming as it does from the keypad of a qualified, certified and reputable medical doctor, incorporates much for us to learn from. Normalcy bias, is considered a psychological condition,

“also known as normality bias, incredulity response, analysis paralysis, and most interesting of all, the ostrich effect. (Formally defined) Normalcy bias is a psychological state of denial people enter in the event of a disaster, as a result of which they underestimate the possibility of the disaster actually happening, and its effects on their life and property. Their denial is based on the assumption that if the disaster has not occurred until now, it will never occur.” (from

Dr. Horton’s piece was prompted by her son’s question, “Could something like the war in Ukraine ever happen here?” to which the good doctor responded, “Yes…Someday it might, because people often misread the degree of a threat. And as with the pandemic, not one country in the world should be arrogant enough to think it could never happen to them.”

Do you fear for your marriage? asked the counsellor to a client who interpreted the question as indisputable evidence of the therapist’s incompetence. “I would not have been there if I had not been worried,” was the summation, sadly. An example of normalcy bias.

“People cannot stand too much reality,” were the words from the Bishop’s mouth, to the seminary student, warning that telling too much truth, especially uncomfortable truth, would be a threat to his professional conduct as a clergy. An example of the application of normalcy bias, as a warning not to dig too deeply into the personal private lives of parishioners.

“After three minutes, he could see right through me!” said the warden to the bishop, after being asked, “How would you like to see your spiritual life develop in  the near future?” An example of how normalcy bias signalled a red flag of incursion into the private life of the fifty-something white male, armoured to the gills, protecting his privacy, as a religious rite.

“The doctor was brutal, insensitive and unhelpful when he told me I was going to die from this pancreatic cancer, which I fully intend to defeat!” were the words of a professional colleague, on the waterfront, barely six weeks before his death. An example of normalcy bias, apparently defied by the medical professional, yet just as earnestly insisted upon by the patient. It is noteworthy, that the medical profession itself has vacillated on whether or not to tell patients the most likely outcome of their especially cancerous condition. Evidence once showed that the full truth often led to a more immediate death, or at least a giving up and worsening of the condition.

This is a pivotal point in so many communications at all levels of our social, political, professional and pastoral engagements. Depending on the assessment of the ‘strength’ of the other to actually integrate whatever hard news might be about to be uttered, a professional sensitive person will attempt to couch the news in words that take on a sheen, or perhaps an aura or odor of holding back, euphemistically known as protecting the victim. It could also be protecting the announcer from having to own the implications and repercussion of harsh news.

In parenting, I have heard kids say that the penalty they got in a hockey game was ‘his’ or ‘her’ fault (the other guy!), given that either the coach or the parent had made a calculated discernment that minimizing the responsibility of the young person was preferable to laying the whole ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ on the penalizedplayer. Is that another example of normalcy bias, or rather of self-=protecting the parent’s vision of both a healthy child from a healthy parenting home? Somehow, most kids I know are able and willing to integrate their own ‘share’ of the referee’s call, unless the situation is so heavily loaded against the official. Again, though, even that perception of a “bad call” on the part of the official, is inevitably intertwined with my normalcy bias, given that authority figures, from my experience, including multiple observations and experiences, make extremely flawed decisions.

Indeed, the question of normalcy bias, so deeply and indelibly and also subtly infused into our conditioning, effectively rules much of our pursuit of fitting into any culture and situation. And we see it repeating itself, like a tribal drum-beat at the beginning of such tragedies as the pandemic, when the American president dismissed it as similar to the common cold or flu. We still see the bias playing out in the defiant rejection of vaccinations, masks, social distancing and the rise and fall of cases of the variants and subvariants of the COVID virus. We watched normalcy bias playing out in the attempts to minimize the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, believing both that such an event was outside the range of even the most assertive empire-builder’s or restorer’s potential. We see normalcy bias, still, among those who contend that Putin will not set foot or plane or missile or even chemical of nuclear ‘dust’ over the border of Ukraine into Poland or other NATO state. Normalcy bias is perhaps another way to characterize the Putin control of the media, control of protesters, control of social media and even access into and out of Russia itself, all aimed at preserving “normalcy” of an historic and murderous slaughter of Ukrainians and their towns and cities. For months, prior to the invasion, too, Ukrainian president Zelensky was singing a song of normalcy, contending that Russia was not going to invade.

We see normalcy bias coming from economists in their trendlines on inflation, holding back their worst-case scenarios, in the hope that such restraint will assist in impeding an impending rise in interest rates, prices and income gaps. So even with all the mounting evidence of normalcy bias, it is continually matched by the other side of the coin, catastrophizing. Indeed, when former Liberal leader, now Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, complained about bi-polarity in political dialogue, he may well have been referencing a vacillation between normalcy bias and catastrophizing, as extreme rhetoric on both sides of a political issue, in an era of steroidal language, thought, and physical exertion as well as wealth-accumulation. Dystopias, like The Handmaid’s Tale, and Orwell’s 1984, tell a tale that exaggerates the heinous, the potentially deplorable, as a perhaps ironic warning about some of the major dynamics in the human story. Men  controlling the reproductive capacity of women, and men exercising little more than mind-bending perversities in both language and geopolitics and war, both heinous in their conception and in their implications, are imaginative paths of both angst and care about the path forward, from two different eras, nations and pens.

In the English church, (Anglican, Episcopal), normalcy bias includes a level of emotional repression that birthed such titles as “God’s Chosen Frozen” as if to say that emotions did not belong inside the sanctuary. And this bias has become one of the primary hallmarks of that faith community, so much so that protests arose over even such elementary ritual changes as a designated moment in the liturgy when parishioners would greet each other, in what is termed, ‘sharing the peace’. Some parishioners, for a very long time after its introduction, absolutely refused even to move an inch toward another worshipper, sitting only a few feet away in the pew. And the problem with that normalcy bias, however, is that it posits a different kind of “deep anxiety” that another might get too close and too personal, given that faith is and must remain an exclusively private matter between the individual and God.

In addition to the specifics of “The Peace” in the ritual, there is a normalcy bias in the very tendency to sacralize and to venerate and virtually to worship the past inside and outside the sanctuary doors. Reading history as “the good old days” as a rhetorical and epistemological path to elevating its memory, including its highly warranted scholarship and study, can easily slide into a public ideology and policy that uses normalcy bias as the defence against change. This is extremely ironic, given that we all know nature itself, as well as all of her living plants and animals, including humans, are constantly changing, evolving, and even decaying.

Families threatened with job loss, potential bankruptcy, will continue to walk and talk as if there were really no impending eviction, or disruption or even destruction of the family unit, in the hope and ‘belief’ that somehow, ‘things will work themselves out’ (often with the help of God as part of the self-talk within the family unit).

Currently, the world itself, and all of the people, are facing another incredibly important normalcy bias, most of the language and the rhetoric, including millions of lobbying dollars in support, contending that the earth’s atmosphere is not going to hell in hand-basket at the hands of human carbon and other toxic gas emissions. Even while chunks of ice the size of the city of New York fall from icebergs in the Antarctic, and temperature in both the Arctic and the Antarctic are estimated to be some 30-40 degrees above normal, and while floods and forest fires, tsunamis and droughts grow both in size and in frequency, those in the “head-in-the-sand-ostrich-club” continue to utter, and to lobby for and to obstruct legislation and public policy that would begin to address this impending “firestorm”.

Cigarette smoking, once considered an intimate component of the high social life, especially as depicted in Hollywood movies in the early part of the twentieth, and their social and economic value were preserved by arguments withing the rubric of normalcy bias, when the evidence glared life-threatening lung cancers, from both primary and secondary smoke.

It is the dynamic of the inevitability of crisis, pandemic, fire, disease, mortality, economic crises, and recently environmental disaster that is intricately interwoven into our’s and our ancestors’ dependency and reliance on and even need for normalcy bias that, perhaps, as a footnote, keeps us from drinking ourselves into oblivion. Catastrophic news, like the storm surges of the Atlantic tsunamis, continue, as alcohol and drug consumption grows, and many find hobbies, new social media ‘friends’ alternative medicines to ameliorate the potential and real pain of our fears and our losses and even our own finality. Complex and driven to survive, as we humans have proven ourselves to be, we do rely on those interior, perhaps even unconscious attributes to keep from falling overboard. And we can only hope that writers like Dr. Jillian Horton continue to advise us and other doctors on how we cope with the crises that continue to roll across both our digital screens and our interior minds. 


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