Normalcy Bias: When You Don't See Danger

Normalcy bias was experienced in Pompeii. In fact, after the explosion of Vesuvius, its inhabitants spent hours watching the spectacle assuming that it wouldn't reach their city. We tell you more about this phenomenon.
Normalcy Bias: When You Don't See Danger
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

One of the most common psychological distortions is, without a doubt, normalcy bias. It refers to your way of thinking when you assume that the things you take for granted today won’t change and that, in life, there’s no risk or danger. At least, if they do exist, you believe they generally only affect others, not you.

This way of underestimating adversity or disaster also acts as a defense mechanism. After all, if you always had the idea in your mind that something bad was going to happen, you probably wouldn’t ever leave home. Instead, you’d spend all your savings on building a bunker. However, it’s appropriate and even necessary to leave some space for the idea that danger and risks do exist.

It’s doesn’t mean you should become obsessed. Nor is it necessary to completely limit your lifestyle in order to avoid any risks. After all, living itself involves taking risks and accepting that, in your daily life, dangers exist. This has always been the case. Indeed, at every moment of human evolution, we’ve accepted adversity and faced it. Therefore, to completely underestimate threats is foolish.

Great disasters are rare. Nevertheless, their appearance shouldn’t be denied due to the low probability of their occurrence. Because, as you well know, they happen, often unexpectedly, and they change lives. You should always bear this in mind.

man drinking coffee

Normalcy bias

As a rule, normalcy bias manifests itself in two ways. The first is simple: you assume that adversity will never knock on your door. This behavior isn’t exclusive to children or adolescents.

Actually, it’s typical at any age. You usually apply it by prioritizing other things, by letting yourself be carried away by everyday life, obligations, and daily pressures which force you to focus on your own world. At no time do you take into account that something negative could happen. That’s because your mind is focusing on other things.

This bias can also appear in another way. It can completely minimize threats even when they’re already present. In this case, you already recognize a problem yet you don’t act appropriately. It’s the kind of behavior that occurs when the risk is already real and the catastrophe or danger is obvious, but you completely avoid or underestimate the threat.

The fact that your environment shows signs of danger is irrelevant. Your mind continues to assume that everything will be fine and, if not, it believes that the probability that this particular adversity will affect you is extremely small, even negligible.

Negative panic or normalcy bias

Normalcy bias is often given other names like negative panic or the ostrich effect. Research conducted by Tel Aviv University (Israel) suggests that about 70 percent of people experience this bias.

For example, when you take your car, the probability of having an accident won’t always cross your mind. Or, when you enter a building, it’s rare for you to imagine that it might collapse. These are completely normal processes in which the normalcy bias allows you to minimize your fear so that you’re able to function normally on a day-to-day basis.

Nevertheless, a problem arises when, in the midst of a natural disaster, conflict, or pandemic, you see yourself as invulnerable and not responsible. In fact, the “Nothing will happen to me” or “It’s all hype, t here’s not really danger” approach is both dangerous and problematic.

Woman with ecological anxiety

The destruction of Pompeii, the volcano that nobody thought was important

The eruption of Vesuvius and the disaster that ensued in the year 79 in the Campania area was the chronicle of a catastrophe foretold. Because seventeen years earlier, an earthquake had already destroyed part of Naples and Pompeii. Pliny the Younger also wrote in his chronicles that tremors were common in these areas. In fact, each day they were becoming more frequent.

A notable example of the normalcy bias was experienced in Pompeii. When Vesuvius exploded, Pompeians spent hours watching the spectacle. They took it for granted that it wouldn’t reach their beautiful city, that, at worst, it would only affect the surrounding cities of Herculaneum and Stabia. However, as we now well know, the disaster buried thousands of people, and all the towns in its vicinity were hidden under a dense blanket of molten stone.

Catastrophes happen. Adversity is a part of life. Nevertheless, it’s far from always present, limiting your lifestyle, and making you fear the worst. Nonetheless, you should recognize its presence, know how to react responsibly, and understand that it’s possible to remain alert without being obsessive.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Drabek, Thomas E. (1986). Human system responses to disaster : an inventory of sociological findings. New York: Springer Verlag. p. 72.
  • Omer, Haim; Alon, Nahman (April 1994). “The continuity principle: A unified approach to disaster and trauma”. American Journal of Community Psychology. 22 (2): 275–276. doi:10.1007/BF02506866.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.