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All Will Be Fine!

You all know this feeling running under the title ‘this cannot happen to me’. During normal times it does have a certain usefulness to it, protecting one from falling into panic and overreacting all sorts of possible problems. It also makes life look smooth and easy by making one believe that someone somewhere will take care of things, so one can continue with Business As Usual forever. ‘The sky is not falling — it didn’t fall last time either — so all you Chicken Littles just shut up and get back to work.

Needless to say, this feeling has devastating effects in face of a real disaster — be it a car accident, a natural disaster, or a stock market crash for that matter. Thomas E Drabek, author of the book Human system responses to disaster: an inventory of sociological findings (1986) coined the term for this phenomenon and called it normalcy bias. It is one of many cognitive biases, which leads people to disbelieve or minimize threat warnings. According to its definition (with my emphasis added):

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.

Sounds familiar? If not, Wikipedia cites a number of examples:

As for events in world history, the normalcy bias can explain why, when the volcano Vesuvius erupted, the residents of Pompeii watched for hours without evacuating. It can explain why thousands of people refused to leave New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached and why at least 70% of 9/11 survivors spoke with others before leaving…

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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