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In 79AD, Pliny the Younger, an elite lawyer and author of ancient Rome, stood to ‘observe a cloud’ as Mount Vesuvius erupted.
In 1912, passengers aboard the Titanic lingered in the comfort and warmth of the boat and even changed into their best attire, before climbing into a lifeboat.
In 1986, inhabitants of Pripyat stood on the, now coined ‘Bridge of Death’, to watch the Nuclear Power Plant at Chernobyl ablaze.
In 2020, Elon Musk tweeted ‘The coronavirus pandemic is dumb’.
Whether you are an author, a traveller or a rocket scientist, you are wired to cling to normality. Normality is familiar, it’s cosy and comforting.
Our brains are quick to notice something cream abnormal. It happened just then, you were not expecting the word cream and yet, you likely did not stop to try to make sense of it, but instead just kept cream going. The second time you saw the word cream, you were a little less surprised than the first time — we normalise things extremely quickly. We brush it off, and continue enjoying the status quo.
Revealing a ⚡ glitch in our thinking, normalcy bias. A glitch that leads us to prefer a future that functions in a similar manner to the past and present, causing us to underestimate both the possibility of a challenging situation or disaster occurring and its possible side effects.
A challenging situation could be immediate or insiduous, for example, a house fire vs. climate change. Or, large or small, for example, a global pandemic vs. a team disagreement at work.
When confronted with a potential challenge or threat 70% of people exhibit normalcy bias. This leads to cognitive paralysis, resulting in complete inaction. Normalcy bias has also been called analysis paralysis or the ostrich effect, and the negative panic by first responders.
Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are in an imminent, disastrous situation, this group will remain calm and start ‘milling’ — asking questions and collecting data on the situation rather than immediately responding, e.g ‘That’s a funny clunking sound that the engine is making, can you hear it? Do you think I should stop or carry on driving?’ or ‘Can anyone else smell smoke?’
On 11th September 2001 (9/11), after the warning alarms had gone off, 91% of office workers waited for further information and carried out further tasks, like collecting their belongings. Only 9% fled as soon as the alarm was raised. The majority delayed their escape by 8 mins, with some set back by half an hour.
It sounds smart to want to collect more information and data before responding? However, when asking these questions we are often looking for the answer we want to hear rather than reality. We want those around us to confirm that we are not in danger.
If you’re on your own in a room and it starts to fill with smoke then you are more likely to leave the room than if you’re with a group of people who don’t appear to be bothered by it.
Whilst 70% of people freeze, 10–15% freak out and only 10–15% are proactive, efficient and do what they need to do. So how can we make sure we’re in the latter?
Overriding normalcy bias
The good news is that just having an awareness of our normalcy bias can help us to avoid its pitfalls. For a robust approach, we can use the 3 stages of overriding normalcy bias; Anticipate, Prepare and Respond.
Business and sport coach, Clive Woodward advocates that there shouldn’t be any scenario or situation that you haven’t come across before. If you familiarise yourself with possible worst-case scenarios, you can prepare accordingly.
For example, just because your team normally works well together, or your customers purchase a certain product regularly, it doesn’t mean they always will. Relying on business-as-usual, or the ‘norm’ leaves us open to disruption.
The companies that Netflix, Airbnb, Uber and Amazon disrupted were constrained by normalcy bias.
The most progressive CEOs take a step away from their companies, so that they don’t get too close and re-gain fresh eyes. Or why businesses employ external consultants — they anticipate that change will come, because inevitably it will.
In preparation, we need to hope for the best whilst planning for the worst.
Of course, we couldn’t possibly prepare a plan for everything life could possibly throw at us, but we can aim to make ourselves more adaptable, resilient and flexible to mitigate the effects of many potential scenarios.
Consider and practice strategies for response; what action could you take to avoid the worst case scenarios? Can you diversify your income, assets or business?
Do you look at maps in hotels so that you’re familiar with the fire escape plan? In life and business we need to be aware of the metaphorical fire escapes.
When you plan for a variety of potential futures, you have a blueprint you can refer to if the unexpected happens.
Even in the midst of change we continue to cling to normal. We grieve for what used to be and are more inclined to stick our heads in the sand until things are normal again, even if it’s clear things will never be normal again.
Fighting change keeps us stuck in the challenge or disaster for longer. The hope of getting back to normal may be digging ourselves more deeply into the mess — stop digging and execute your plan!
Be proactive in the midst of the chaos: adapt, diversify and move forwards.
By embracing and welcoming change and uncertainty, we allow ourselves to progress forwards. We don’t want to linger or mill; we want to propel ourselves to recovery.
A bittersweet goodbye to normal
Normal is comfortable but dangerous. Normality is what enabled a global pandemic. Do we really want to go back there?
As Tim Harford explores in an article for the FT — what if instead of seeing Sars as the warning for Covid-19, we need to see Covid-19 itself as the warning for something much worse? We need to embrace change, adapt, learn and prepare for the future.
Let’s not let the romanticised idea of getting ‘back to normal’ cause us to hesitate, risk our safety or put our lives on pause. Work with what you have now and make the most of it, whatever that might look like for you.
Let’s anticipate, prepare and respond, to let go of normality and keep moving forwards.
- 70% of people exhibit normalcy bias when confronted with a potential threat. 10–15% freak out and 10–15% are proactive, efficient and do what they need to do.
- 3 stages of overriding normalcy bias: Anticipate, prepare and respond
- Prepare for every possible future scenario; hope for the best whilst preparing for the worst
- Stay proactive in the midst of chaos
- Don’t cling to normality — be agile, flexible and keep moving forwards
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