When disaster strikes, some people lose their heads, some people become cool and effective, but by far most people act as if they've suddenly forgotten the disaster. They behave in surprisingly mundane ways, right up until it's too late. Around the world, researchers are wondering how to combat normalcy bias.
If you spend the beginning of your flights staring in disbelief at the cabin crew gesturing towards the emergency exits and asking you to look at them and think about walking to them in an emergency, you may be surprised that doing exactly that has saved one person. When two planes collided just above a runway in Tenerife in 1977, a man was stuck, with his wife, in a plane that was slowly being engulfed in flames. He remembered making a special note of the exits, grabbed his wife's hand, and ran towards one of them. As it happened, he didn't need to use it, since a portion of the plane had been sheared away. He jumped out, along with his wife and the few people who survived. Many more people should have made it out. Fleeing survivors ran past living, uninjured people who sat in seats literally watching for the minute it took for the flames to reach them.
This isn't unique behavior, although plane crashes provide the most dramatic examples. People seeking shelter during tornadoes and cyclones are often called back, or delayed, by people doing normal activities, who refuse to believe the emergency is happening. These people are displaying what's known as normalcy bias. About 70% of people in a disaster do it. Although movies show crowds screaming and panicking, most people move dazedly through normal activities in a crisis. This can be a good thing; researchers find that people who are in this state are docile and can be directed without chaos. They even tend to quiet and calm the 10-15% of people who freak out.
The downside of the bias is the fact that they tend to retard the progress of the 10-15% of people who act appropriately. The main source of delay masquerades as the need to get more data. Scientists call this "milling." People will usually get about four opinions on what's going on and what they should do before taking any action — even in an obvious crisis. People in emergency situations report calling out to others, asking, "What's going on?" When someone tells them to evacuate, or to take shelter, they fail to comply and move on, asking other people the same question.
This isn't entirely loopy behavior. If something minor seems wrong, in your neighborhood, office, or home, it's hardly inappropriate to ask the people around what's happening. And how many of us have heard a suspicious noise nearby, paused for a moment, and then thought, "I'm sure it's nothing," and gone back to what we were doing? The problem comes when, even when it is obviously something, people stay in denial.
There are a lot of theories for why this occurs. There's the shock itself, and the time it takes to process it. Even people who are well-trained and well-informed lose some of their knowledge and physical acumen under extreme pressure. Some researchers blame instincts. Animals that don't struggle during an attack by an overwhelmingly large predator are sometimes left alone. The passivity indicates sickness or poison, and puts off the predator. Faced with a threat that's overwhelmingly enormous, people may instinctively become passive as well.
Other researchers believe those with normalcy bias are playing the odds. People step onto dangerous-looking roller coasters every day and scare themselves half to death, trusting that, no, the situation their instincts are screaming about couldn't possibly really be happening. Rounding out the theories about normalcy bias is the idea that people need information in order to act. If people don't know how to deal with a situation, they can't begin to deal with it, so they don't begin to deal with it.
Nothing can be done about sudden shocks and natural instincts, so most researchers try to deal in increased information. This is why we're given countless safety lectures. Look at the exits and plan your exit route. In the event of an earthquake, a fire, a flood, do this. Drills and practices, even if only done in a person't imagination, at least give them the basic tools that they need when dealing with an emergency.
More complicated, from a policy standpoint, is the need to personalize the risk. This information — that the present disaster will harm you, yes you, so take action — is the hardest to accurately disseminate. People mill, asking for opinions, because they want to be told that everything is fine. They will keep asking, and delaying, until they get the answer they want. In a completely alien emergency situation — such as a downed, flaming plane — people think of the likelihood that they're mistaken about the nature of the emergency, and the consequences for screwing up if they take personal action. Although early warning systems, alarms, and alerts proliferate, very few things manage to get through to specific people that they are in personal danger, that they are on their own, and that they need to take steps to save themselves.