An emergency management plan is a course of action developed to mitigate the damage of potential events that could endanger an organization’s ability to function.
And, if your organization’s disaster preparedness team has had a difficult time getting the attention of upper management to support and fund your recommended initiation, evaluation and implementation of that plan …. then you might well have encountered a normalcy bias behavior from upper management.
For example, if that upper management team in the situation expressed above does not really believe that disasters may not be as much of a threat to the organization than your team does, then management may well be assuming that its current state of preparedness is just fine.
Even more challenging is that if they believe that their current state of preparedness can handle a potential disaster event, then most likely, they might also hold that any investment into trying to handle it any better is unnecessary.
This is a common example of the normalcy bias playing out its impact on the judgement capabilities of that upper management team.
So what is normalcy bias and what can be done to address its effects?
Normalcy Bias Defined
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, defines normalcy bias as “…a mental state people enter when facing a disaster.
It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster and its possible effects. This may result in situations where people fail to adequately prepare. The assumption that is made in the case of the normalcy bias is that since a disaster never has occurred, it never will occur. It can result in the inability of people to cope with a disaster once it occurs. People with a normalcy bias have difficulties reacting to something they have not experienced before. People also tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible, seizing on any ambiguities to infer a less serious situation.”
Normalcy bias makes us believe that it won’t happen to us, and that if it does it won’t be that bad.
Normalcy bias is more than believing that the rain will stop before the river floods; it’s thinking that the warning is probably overblown, and that you have plenty of time to evacuate because you know how long the route will take. Normalcy bias is not understanding that disasters change things.
All too often and certainly in the case of upper management not fully buying into the disaster preparedness planning process – the real problem with normalcy bias is not that it keeps us from physically preparing for disaster (having flashlights and bottled water on hand), but rather that it can keep us from recognizing when something is wrong and from being mentally prepared to react to changing conditions. It keeps us from developing the skills we need to be adaptive decision-makers in a disaster.
The normalcy bias can also encourage us to follow the rest when, in fact, waiting for the rest to act is likely not the best option in a disaster situation.
The normalcy bias must be recognized and addressed very early in the planning process of writing an emergency management plan, an employee action plan, or a disaster preparedness plan.
Normalcy Bias Matters in an Emergency Management Plan
After much research in this area, there is little argument against the claim that disasters can and most often do create uncertainty. And, faced with those disasters, it also appears that people will mostly try to reduce uncertainty by seeking information from their surroundings, from their family and friends, the media, etc.
However, it has been observed also that the real problem with uncertainty is that it affects our ability to make decisions in a crisis. And by not making the needed decisions in the face of a crisis, precious time is too often lost by seeking information. In a short-fuse event like a wildfire, a flash flood or a terrorist attack, it can cost lives.
The lack of preparation for disasters often leads to inadequate shelter, supplies, and evacuation plans. Even when all these things are in place, individuals with a normalcy bias often refuse to leave their homes. Studies have shown that more than 70% of people check with others before deciding to evacuate.
For crisis communication to be effective in preparing for disasters, the people receiving that communication have to accept the fact that the message is accurate, that it is intended for them, that they are capable of doing what the message is telling them to do, and that the outcome will be worth the resources it will take to comply. That’s a lot to ask of a 30-second warning message, and a lot to expect of anyone on the receiving end if they aren’t prepared for it.
We have many tools to teach people to better interpret warnings and be better adaptive decision-makers.
We can reduce the amount of time spent on information seeking and equip people to make better decisions when facing a disaster through better and more effective risk communication efforts.
Understanding what normalcy bias is, how it might be playing a role in your disaster preparedness and emergency management plan efforts, your emergency management plan, your compliance and certification efforts in ISO Standards, and helping others become aware of the risk that it can bring into those preparedness planning activities will make those planning, evaluation and implementation efforts more effective. More importantly, it will result in you and your organization being better prepared to address incidents, disasters and disrupting events when they occur.
A few suggestions you might want to follow to address the debilitating condition of normalcy bias would be:
- Acknowledge that you or another you might care for experiences normalcy bias and become educated as the conditions it has on your life and decisions affecting that life.
- Research and evaluate your options.
- Seek the support and advice of knowledgeable, compassionate and responsible colleagues and industry leaders.
- Although it is difficult to confront the reality of the potential scenarios that might occur from a disaster or catastrophe, denial will not make it go away.
If this information is applicable, please pass it on to those preparedness planning team members in your organization responsible for emergency essentials such as disaster recovery planning, emergency preparedness and emergency action plan efforts, etc.
And, if you are looking for recommended reading on this topic, I suggest a book written by Amanda Ripley, entitled, “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why”.
By Ben J. Carnevale, Managing Editor