Language Lessons: Normalcy Bias

normalcy bias definition
| October 5, 2017
Categories: Musings

Today’s article was brought to you in its entirety by Daniel Defense (@DanielDefense): Lighter. Stronger. Better.

Language Lessons: Normalcy Bias

Chris Hernandez

Term: Normalcy Bias

Category: Situational Awareness and Perception

Application(s) of Use: Understanding natural human response to unexpected, life-threatening stress

Related to: Survival stress reactions

Definition: Normalcy Bias is “a bias to believe that things will always function the way things normally function”; in other words, the natural human tendency to try to fit anomalies into something understandable and routine. For example, people might assume gunfire in a mall must actually be teenagers screwing around with fireworks, or think a man walking into a bank with a mask must be stopping by on his way to a costume party.

Into the Weeds: According to Wikipedia, “About 70% of people reportedly display normalcy bias in disasters.” This author experienced it himself when he walked up to a car at a minor accident scene, saw a decapitated child’s head on the floorboard, and tried to convince himself the child must have been stuck between the seat and door with only his head protruding onto the floorboard. He saw it in others when he arrived just after a prolonged police shootout in broad daylight, and multiple witnesses said, “I thought someone must have been filming a movie or something.”

Just recently in Las Vegas we saw video of a man in the audience yelling “It’s fireworks, it’s fireworks, stop!” as an active shooter fired hundreds of rounds into the fleeing crowd. In another video a man explains to panicked, huddled concertgoers that the sound of gunshots came from a hacked sound system.

(I’m not linking this video because it’s being shared by conspiracy theorists who suggest it’s proof the attack was a hoax and WAKE UP SHEEPLE!!!).

Terrorists attacked the Bataclan theater in Paris in November 2015, during a concert by the band Eagles of Death Metal. The lead singer (at left in the following video), a lifelong shooting enthusiast, immediately recognized the gunfire, overcame normalcy bias and ran for cover. His lead guitarist, on the other hand, assumed the gunfire was a malfunction in the sound system and stood motionless on stage for several seconds.

Another example of normalcy bias came from Marty LaVor, a photographer at the annual congressional baseball game which was attacked by an active shooter last June. LaVor saw the shooter just before the attack, and described his reaction this way:

“He picked up the rifle, and so I saw the rifle, and the thought that ran through my mind … because it was so out of context, why would anybody have a rifle there? And, what ran through my mind was, ‘Why would anybody be trying to shoot birds at six o’clock in the morning?’”

IN SUMMARY: Normalcy bias is the tendency, present in most of the population, to try to fit obvious signs of disaster into some routine and believable alternative explanation. It’s a momentary refusal to believe what you are seeing and hearing, because it’s so outside the scope of normal experience. Normalcy bias can delay your response to a lethal threat and can therefore be deadly if not overcome.

Question for the readers: Have you ever experienced normalcy bias? How and when? What have you done to overcome it?


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breachbangclear.com_site_images_Chris_Hernandez_Author_BreachBangClear4About the Author: Chris Hernandez, seen here on patrol in Afghanistan, may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of Tacos Are Racist, Females in the Infantry – Yes Actually, The Military Within the Military, and several other delightfully opinionated bloviations. He has also penned several modern military fiction novels, including Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page right here on Amazon.


  1. David Durkop

    It wasn’t an emergent call, but I stopped a car in the late 1980s as I walked up I noticed a Motorola radio in the vehicle. I ASSUMED it was an unmarked police car it wasn’t. Nothing bad happened, I just stuck my head into the kill zone. I was young and dumb, but learned a good lesson that night.

    We make assumptions about many things, like the way someone is dressed or the way they act. As Dannus stated, it is hard to be in the zone all of the time. The longer you do this you either get aware of what is going on or numb too it. It is a choice the individual makes.

  2. DannusMaximus

    I haven’t experienced ‘normalcy bias’ in the context the author is specifically talking about (a life threatening situation such as an active shooter or other disaster), but I think a certain flavor of that phenomenon is rather common in the emergency services. I know in my instance we make so many medical runs which I would consider BS or non-emergent that when I ACTUALLY make one which is serious it sometimes takes a few seconds to get my head and ass wired together and deal with the situation. Part of this might be based on the information we get from our dispatch center (which in turn is 100% based on the information THEY get from the caller), part of it is just slipping into a routine. It can be hard to remain switched on all the time, whether you are a cop who is responding to their 5th domestic violence call of the shift, or a firefighter who is responding to the 4th fire alarm in one night at a shopping center, or the EMS crew who is dispatched to yet another chest pain call. You are expecting it to be a BS run, so you’re mentally already behind the curve when that DV call goes sideways, or that shopping center has fire blowing out of 3 different storefronts.

    • JRC

      Confirmation bias?


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