Three Words to Improve Disaster Outcomes How not to succumb to the normalcy bias. Ronda Oberlin | November 2, 2015

Three Words to Improve Disaster Outcomes

How not to succumb to the normalcy bias.

Ronda Oberlin | November 2, 2015

If I could say just three words to prepare someone for disaster it would be these: Disasters change things. All of the reasons for not being prepared, and for not following emergency instructions in a disaster (too hard, too expensive, no need), are tied to those words. 

If you don’t believe disasters change things, you assume that you can handle whatever happens, and any investment into handling that better is unnecessary. This is our normalcy bias at work. Normalcy bias makes us believe that it won’t happen to us, and that if it does it won’t be that bad. That if we dial 911, help will come and that our actions will always have the same results, regardless of the circumstances.

Normalcy bias is more than believing that the rain will stop before the river floods; it’s assuming that there is nothing but smooth pavement under the water on the road, and being sure that your car can make it through. It’s thinking that the warning is probably overblown, and that you have plenty of time to evacuate because you know how long the route will take. Normalcy bias is not understanding that disasters change things.

The real problem with normalcy bias is not that it keeps us from physically preparing for disaster (having flashlights and bottled water on hand), it’s that it can keep us from recognizing when something is wrong and from being mentally prepared to react to changing conditions. It keeps us from developing the skills we need to be adaptive decision-makers in a disaster.Reducing Uncertainty 

The reality is that disasters create uncertainty. We naturally try to reduce uncertainty by seeking information from our surroundings, our family and friends, the media, etc. The problem with uncertainty is that it affects our ability to make decisions in a crisis. The problem with information seeking is that it takes precious time in a disaster. In a short-fuse event like a wildfire, a flash flood or a terrorist attack, it can cost lives. 


For crisis communication to be effective, the people receiving it have to accept that the message is accurate, that it is intended for them, that they are capable of doing what the message is telling them to do, and that the outcome will be worth the resources it will take to comply. That’s a lot to ask of a 30-second warning message, and a lot to expect of anyone on the receiving end if they aren’t prepared for it.

We have the tools to teach people to better interpret warnings and be adaptive decision-makers. We can reduce information seeking and equip people to make better decisions through risk communication. We are reaching them already, with mixed results, through preparedness outreach. By refocusing our message on building crisis management skills, we can improve disaster outcomes. The key to doing that is the idea that disasters change things.

Refocusing the Message

Here are some considerations to help turn your preparedness outreach into disaster decision-maker training:

Teach cues to recognize the event. Dark skies, strange noises and smells, even news reports or warnings, can be noted without really getting our attention. “It sounded like a freight train” is more than the punchline to a joke. It’s a cue that’s ingrained in our popular culture that can move people past “huh, that’s odd” to life-saving action.

Give instructions in an easy to remember format. Think “Turn around, don’t drown.”
Teach them to follow their instincts, not the crowd. The most basic form of information seeking is looking around to see what everyone else is doing. If no one else is reacting, it’s easy to assume that they have information we don’t or that there’s no reason for alarm. If family and friends don’t think there is a reason to evacuate, people are more likely to stay in spite of their own inclinations. People need to know that it’s OK to be the one that takes steps even when no one else does. There may be others that will be glad to follow their lead. In disaster, our safety is not in numbers, our safety is in following our instincts and taking responsibility for our own well-being.

Emphasize that disasters change things; in the environment, and in the people who are involved in them. Information will be hard to find, stress will be high, and it may be hard to know the right thing to do. It might be hard to remember details or to understand complicated instructions. Resources and services that they are used to having — like power, gas stations, ATMs, 911, and in-home assistance — may not be available.

Acknowledge that they make choices every day and that how they respond in a disaster is their choice. There are a multitude of benefits to including this element: It promotes self-efficacy; it implies a sense of control and makes them participants in disaster decision-making; it promotes a sense of personal responsibility and personalization of risk; it legitimizes their unique perspective; it shows respect; and it’s true.

Give them preparedness tasks. By all means, encourage them to have a three-day supply of water and a flashlight with extra batteries. Having an emergency kit can reduce stress in a disaster and can give a sense of control over out-of-control circumstances. Reducing stress makes good decision-making easier. The act of collecting items and creating emergency plans before a disaster provides an opportunity for people to think and talk through what could happen. Action creates self-efficacy, and thinking through what could happen teaches them what to expect — both contribute to mental models that will help them process information more effectively in an emergency.

Improved Outcomes

No one learns to swim in the middle of a flooded river. The only abilities we have in a disaster are those we develop before it starts. Risk communication can help people create the frame of reference needed to interpret disaster input (what they see, what they hear and what crisis communicators are telling them) and take appropriate action. When good risk communication meets good crisis communication, the chances of good disaster decision-making improve — and the likely result of good disaster decision-making is a better disaster outcome.


Ronda Oberlin is the co-founder of the Do 1 Thing emergency preparedness program www.do1thing.com. She has been an emergency management specialist with the Lansing, Mich., Office of Emergency Management since 1999. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications.