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Why Most People Aren’t Good in a Crisis

It’s a fact. America is suffering from bias. I’m not referring to racism or prejudice. I’m referring to something that could contribute to the decline of American life as we’ve come to know it. The bias that I’m referring to is called normalcy bias.

Normalcy bias is quite simply our mind’s inability to comprehend and understand that a looming disaster is, in fact, looming. Instead, when faced with information that should inform us of an imminent crisis, our minds choose to ignore the information and “reason” that if it hasn’t happened before, it probably won’t happen. When the perceived danger is so big that it we have trouble even imagining the consequences, our normalcy bias kicks in and we simply ignore it and continue on as though all is normal.

This human phenomenon isn’t merely psychological. It is biological. It is a part of how our neurons work in our minds. Unlike what most of us would believe, pending fear that is processed by our amygdala (the part of our brain that processes neural responses that stir up fear, worry, etc.) does not necessarily translate into immediate action. In fact, if the fear represents a big enough danger it can actually lead not just to avoidance and denial, but also to complete inaction. This isn’t by choice, nor is it caused by ignorance. It is actually our natural first response to grave danger.

It is a primitive fact that an animal’s first reaction when facing an immediate and threatening fear is to physically go still. This is true for the human animal as well. Consider the video taken during the Atlanta Olympics when a bomb went off in the crowd. Everyone immediately crouched and froze.  Scientists have also taken note when laboratory mice that are descended from many generations of laboratory mice—none of which has ever even seen a housecat—will freeze when a housecat is introduced to their environment.

So we have a biological tendency to freeze when facing scary crisis or disaster. In short, when we’re really scared and we don’t know what to do, our tendency isn’t to do something—it’s to do nothing. So what’s the problem…?

Consider the economic challenges facing our country today. Most Americans, politicians and media professionals are well aware of the problem that the Feds are spending so much money that they are forced to print more. We also know for a fact that several states can’t possibly pay their way out of their debt even with Draconian budget cuts, and that there is no legal mechanism that allows a state to go bankrupt. Additionally most of us are aware that for the first time since its inception, several countries are considering the wisdom of keeping the US Dollar as the international currency and that if things continue the way they are going, its days as such are numbered.  (This, by the way, would be a game-changer of epic proportions.)

Yet, the media, the politicians and most of the American public, don’t seem to take note to the degree that they should. I say this because our response is not largely one of action, but one of relative sameness.

We are frozen. By frozen I mean that we are not treating our economy as a doctor would treat a patient in intensive care—disregarding minor physical maladies and focusing on those that are life-threatening.  We don’t seem to know what to do about the fear we feel, so we do nothing. When I say we do nothing, let me clarify. Collectively, we are certainly not taking action and having national dialogue that is in proportion to the size and scope of the dangers we are facing. Instead, most Americans, the media and our politicians continue to believe that because it has all worked out before, it will again. An interesting response in spite of the fact that never before in the history of the world (certainly in the history of this country) have the social, economic and political circumstances been what they are today.

Now I realize that some politicians and agenda-driven people on the far side of both political parties are urging dramatic responses, but most of these people are simply using the crisis to advance their own agendas. I say this because they are simply recommending actions similar to what they would recommend under normal conditions based on their own political agendas. Remember the now famous quote from Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste…it’s an opportunity to do things you didn’t think you could do before.”  Unfortunately, these types of agenda driven leaders, (and they exist on both sides of the aisle) too often lack the nuance of understanding that is required to determine the appropriate and necessary actions that would end or even prevent crisis.

Perhaps most people are right and our economy will simply work itself out. Either way, one thing is for certain…  When facing a crisis, we would all be better off if we could learn how to discern what in the world is actually happening, and what in our minds is not.

© Caruso Leadership Institute. Reprints available with permission.

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