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Situational Awareness and Normalcy Bias

How often would you say you get “caught off guard?”

In an everyday context, this could be as harmless as reaching for your coffee mug without looking and spilling it on your carpet, or as serious as failing to notice an oncoming car as you step out into the street.

These mistakes are easy to make and most people make them every day. The interesting thing about it is that harmless mistakes of little or no consequence and serious accidents that can result in death are often caused by the same problem: a lack of situational awareness.

In a similar scenario, how often are you shocked into denial and disbelief? You’ve seen it in the movies countless times: the lead is going about his or her day when chaos ensues, and the first response to danger is, “This can’t be happening. Not to me.”

This poke-your-head-in-the-sand phenomenon is called “normalcy bias,” and is a very common reaction to stressful situations.

When combined, these two mental missteps can be lethal. But, with practice you can become less susceptible to these lapses in attention and the resulting disasters that may result.

Situational Awareness

Situational Awareness (SA) is more than just a phrase frequently screamed in military training camps. It is a subset of psychology that has been subjected to rigorous study and explored for its utility in technological applications.

At its most basic, SA refers to an awareness of things in your immediate environment. It is a snapshot assessment of whether you are safe or at risk. It occurs moment by moment and is as involuntary as blinking.

A closer look at SA reveals how complex this process is, which helps you see how amazing it is ““ and how easily mistakes can be made. When you are judging your safety in a situation you simultaneously consider:

  • Your physical and mental health/condition
  • Who is around you
  • The safety of your physical location
  • The level of volatility (if and how fast things can change) in that location
  • Your purpose and needs

These are incredibly complicated concepts and each one has its own lengthy number of variables. Let’s examine some of the questions you may have about who is around you, as an example:

  • Are they strangers or are they known to you
  • What are their intentions/motivations
  • How many are there
  • Are there likely to be more, or less, in the near future
  • What is their potential to interact with you
  • (Perhaps most importantly) Do you know them to be dangerous
  • Do they “look” dangerous
  • How do you look to them
  • Could you rely on any of them for help

And so on.

You may notice that the future is contemplated in a few of the above questions, which could be said to be the “goal” of situational awareness ““ to better anticipate threats and either avoid them or react to them in an efficient manner.

Real-World Applications

SA has been incorporated into military training for many years, although usually in a general way that refers to paying attention and “keeping your head on a swivel.” Test pilots and individuals trained in counterterrorism, however, are better schooled in the science and application of Situational Awareness.

But, learning how to be vigilant in your awareness is not limited to people in these professions, nor should it be. Everyone can benefit from increased awareness in their lives.

Situational Awareness “Test”

Consider this urban scenario: you are chatting on your cell phone as you walk down a busy street. You are discussing a terrorist threat you saw on the news earlier that made reference to the city. A commotion erupts ahead of you, but your friend is saying something interesting, and you duck your head and plug your other ear to better hear him.

He is saying the threat even referenced your office building, which is just up ahead. Just then you notice people are yelling in your direction and you look up to see smoke, and a man running toward you. He is conspicuously dressed in what you believe looks like terrorist garb.

What do you do?  In the case of normalcy bias, what will you be capable of doing?

Normalcy Bias

Richard Adams memorably described the rabbits in his novel Watership Down as “going tharn” when caught in the headlights of oncoming cars ““ struck with a fear that rooted them to the spot, thus sealing their fate.

Humans may also “go tharn” in stressful situations, but is it fear that incapacitates us?

Not really. Normalcy bias, also sometimes called analysis paralysis, is a form of mental gymnastics that effectively erases a person’s ability to think in the face of a disaster. It isn’t fear so much as it is a blunt denial of the facts of the situation, combined with a stubborn resistance to make a decision regarding that situation.

This seems to suggest that normalcy bias is a response, but that is incorrect. Normalcy bias is an underlying mental state that inhibits a person’s ability to even consider the possibility of a disaster. In other words, a person experiencing normalcy bias has lost the fight before the fight has even arrived at his or her doorstep.

Real-World Applications

Normalcy bias is best experienced when people are “snapping out of it,” like when people finally realize that, yes, a disaster is really coming, and they all rush to gather emergency supplies. Then, of course, this in itself can cause a disaster.

Someone who has broken the normalcy bias habit will already be prepared to weather the storm, because they will have overcome the “it’ll never happen to me” mentality as well as recognized the threats in his or her area, whether that be impending civil unrest, severe weather or something as simple as having a good First-Aid/survival kit and the ability to quickly execute life-saving techniques.

Normalcy Bias “Test”

This test is easy:

In other words, it’s about preparedness. Knowing these things indicates that you have considered the possibility that the world is an unpredictable place and bad things may actually happen to you.

Situational Awareness Meets Normalcy Bias

Remember the situational awareness (SA) terrorist “test” mentioned earlier? An individual entrenched in normalcy bias would likely not be able to draw any helpful connections between the smoke, the suspicious-looking character approaching at speed and news of a possible terrorist act in the vicinity. He or she will very likely stand there, literally waiting for trouble to pass by.

If you are a person with excellent SA, you would not have even been in the area. The news that a terrorist threat had involved your building would have been enough to keep you from going near the office, and you would have seen the news because you are attuned not only to your immediate surroundings, but to the broader local, national and global concerns of the world in which you live.

Individuals who are both aware of the dangers of normalcy bias and have SA will not only have avoided the possible dangers waiting at the office, they would have been prepared to face a possible panic caused by an actual incident by having a stock of emergency supplies and a plan to get out of town.

Normalcy bias tells a person reading this that planning for such an unlikely event is silly; perhaps even a waste of time and resources. And, the lack of Situational Awareness will ensure this person is very surprised if a sudden and unpredictable change does take place, which will result in a further normalcy bias response.

You can avoid this potentially lethal cycle by acknowledging that life can be unpredictable, anticipating change and preparing for it.

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