Definition: Normalcy bias, is a cognitive bias which leads people to disbelieve or minimise threat warnings. People fail to comprehend that things will not carry on as they are forever. Consequently, individuals underestimate the likelihood of a disaster, when it might affect them, and its potential adverse effects.
I first heard this term just over a year ago, when we were watching events unfold in China and then Italy, comfortable in the belief that our superior hand hygiene would keep the nasty covid bugs away from us. If you ever want to reminisce about how completely we fell for the normalcy bias then I would highly recommend watching Charlie Brooker's "Anti-Viral Wipe". I particularly enjoyed watching Boris insist that he would most definitely shake hands with Covid patients. We all know how that worked out for him!
Normalcy Bias is something that can be useful when looking at grief responses. We all live in a world where things happen to "other people". We read the news stories and think how awful that these things have happened to "them", then we carry on with our lives. It is only when you become "other people" that you realise that they are just people, I would never have thought I could be the mother of a daughter who died, until I was. Then I realised that of course this could happen, how could I possibly have thought that it couldn't. Then the normalcy bias is shattered.
People often talk about a change in perception after suffering a loss, of viewing life and time in a way that is different from before. It is a view that is not clouded by normalcy bias. We are aware that the worst can, and often does, happen. It makes us aware of the small happy moments, to really savour them, and to drop and dismiss the things are not worth hanging on to.
A lack of normalcy bias isn't all sunshine and bumper sticker quotes, it also brings The Fear. Once you realise that things can happen to you, that you are "other people" it can be quite paralysing. How can you let loved ones out of your sight with all the dangers in the world that could befall them. How can you go to sleep when you cannot be sure what the next day will bring.
The Fear is awful.
As we reach the end of lockdown#3 and (hopefully) enter into a more open society, where we can once again meet and shop and drink and go to hairdressers and pubs, we may all find we need to combat The Fear. The Coronavirus Pandemic not only brought millions of deaths, but also a realisation to many of us that disasters do happen, and that they do happen to us.
We need to find a way to balance Normalcy Bias against The Fear. I think it's important to realise that things may change and that we should embrace each day. However, we cannot live in expectation of disaster, we can only be aware that it may happen.
"Civilised life, you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us.”
― J.G. Ballard