Everything You Need to Know About Normalcy Bias

Helen Lee Bouygues

If you’ve ever identified with this meme, you’re already familiar with normalcy bias. 

The reason this meme resonates is because we can all probably remember an instance in which we were in a dangerous situation, but could not move to action. We believed that the “normal” experience would overtake the abnormal one, and so we did not act, believing falsely that the return to normalcy would be swift. This was normalcy bias at work, and it is behind some of the most devastating tragedies in the human experience. Normalcy bias is also known as status quo bias, analysis paralysis, and fittingly, the ostrich effect. It’s also commonly called, “denial.”

There are many examples of normalcy bias in the business world. The now-infamous decision Blockbuster made to turn down Netflix’s offer for acquisition in the early 2000s is a well-documented case of normalcy bias in the corporate sector. When a disruption appears, business leaders often believe that it’s an anomaly and that customers won’t stray from their normal habits. Browsing for VHS and DVD copies of movies was the standard Friday night practice for Blockbuster’s customers. Netflix’s newfangled idea to mail DVDs, and later to stream movies right into homes, triggered Blockbuster’s normalcy bias, and the deal was dead, along with Blockbuster. 

The most recent and widespread example of normalcy bias is our reaction to COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, with so many unknowns and some influential world leaders downplaying COVID’s severity, many felt that it wasn’t going to be a seismic event. Schools would reopen, we would go to dinner, we would meet up with our friends–it would all be normal soon enough. 

As the months dragged on, it became clear that the pandemic was going to last longer than many of us and many experts predicted at the outset. But the desire to get back to “normal” created a new situation. We’ve now seen segments of the population fight against virus-mitigating options like masks and social distancing, and more recently, against vaccination. Many more people began traveling and gathering indoors before health experts recommended it. Their desire for “normal” trumped what was a large-scale, global disaster, and it also meant they could dismiss personal and community safety norms.

The now-infamous decision Blockbuster made to turn down Netflix’s offer for acquisition in the early 2000s is a well-documented case of normalcy bias in the corporate sector.

Why does this happen and how can we counteract this? At the Reboot Foundation we are dedicated to advancing critical thinking skills, which can help people identify and overcome their own biases. Critical thinking skills also help us understand why people around us are behaving the way they are, and can help us find broader solutions that appeal to majorities. 

In the case of normalcy bias, there are several critical thinking skills we can employ to ascertain if a given situation is really dangerous to our health and well-being. Here are some questions to ask when you find yourself in a situation where you may be succumbing to normalcy bias: 

  • Is my decision-making process based on what I have learned, or what other people have told me? Collaboration can be a powerful tool. However, in situations where you might need to make a decision for yourself, you will need to determine whether you are acting rationally and independently on the information you’ve gathered, or whether you’ve simply adopted the ideas of others as your own.  
  • Do I have evidence and data to support my thinking or is my proof anecdotal? Human beings are built to understand complex situations via storytelling. It is our primary way to understand the world around us. However, in situations like a natural disaster or a widespread disease, relying on anecdotal evidence, such as a single story of one person’s experience, can cause us to reject collective data that might tell us something different. 
  • Am I comfortable with being wrong? Our biases are incredibly convincing! Evolutionarily, we are primed to make quick judgements and decisions to persevere. To counteract them, we must first contend with the possibility that our initial thinking and gut reactions are potentially incorrect. Only then can critical thinking move us to new and helpful information. 

It’s important to remember that biases are common, and that all of us have them. They can even be helpful. For example, normalcy bias can prevent us from overreacting to events that are not actually dangerous. Our ability to rationalize and adapt to different situations has been incredibly helpful, evolutionarily. It allows us to innovate and explore and to find new solutions to new challenges.

At the same time, when biases can negatively impact our lives, it’s important to identify them and dismantle them when possible. Critical thinking can help us navigate from natural biased thinking to rigorous objectivity, in service of bolstering our decision-making skills.

Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation

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