Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

Normalcy Bias - When Normal Isn't

This past year we have had the unfortunate opportunity to read about a number of aircraft accidents. Far too many of these accidents were pilot error. Worse yet, a number of these accidents ranging from GA, to corporate, military, and the airlines were caused by and effect called the normalcy bias.

Normalcy bias sometimes referred to as “analysis paralysis,” is a reference to a person (or peoples) mental state when facing a disaster. When in that state of consciousness it (normalcy bias) causes people to underestimate the possibility of a disaster occurring. If however, a disastrous situation is recognized, then normalcy bias can lead to also underestimating the possible effects of the potential disaster. The result of that line of thinking is too frequently fatal.

This happens in part because individuals have very likely inadequately prepared themselves for contingencies. They now believe that since a potentially disastrous situation has never happened before, it cannot, or is not happening now. Normalcy bias also impacts the ability of people to cope with a disaster when it has occurred. Perhaps it is a cultural element that causes many people to interpret situations in a more optimistic manner, thus reasoning or implying that the situation at hand is not as bad as it may in fact be.

Research suggests that it takes a “calm” brain nearly 10 seconds to process new information. The addition of stress slows that process. Thus, when the brain is unable to find an acceptable response to a situation, it can quickly become fixated on a single solution that may or may not be correct. This cognitive dissonance causes people to believe everything will be alright when in actuality, indications from multiple sources are showing perhaps the exact opposite information.

The other side of this coin

Potentially dangerous situations in aircraft are not often the result of just one thing being overlooked. In fact it is usually two or more things missed; one thing leading to another, in a chain of causation. This can lead to loss of situational awareness (SA). We have seen this happen in recent crashes where the cockpit crew essentially fixated on a specific cockpit situation or item, and ultimately suffered loss of aircraft control and CFIT.

Loss of SA can be the direct result of one or more of the following causes:

1. Complacency “I’ve seen (or done) this a hundred times, so ....”

2. Gut feeling/confusion when the subconscious is putting out a warning.

3. Feeling good, everything is just perfect, everything is going too well.

4. Fixation on emergencies, equipment/instrument alarms, etc.

5. Two independent sources disagree and remain unresolved.

6. Poor communication or slow to respond.

7. Unresolved discrepancies, like conflict alerts, low altitude alerts, TCAS alerts, and more.

8. Improper procedures, such as deviations from checklist procedures and/or FARs.

Now it can be seen that being complacent, distracted, or fixated in the cockpit can lead to some very undesirable consequences. It is extremely important to prepare yourself well before flight. If you haven’t flown all winter, be sure to schedule a few hours with your favorite flight instructor and practice, practice, practice!

Ask questions of your CFI and think about the “what if’s.” Plan what you would do to handle a multitude of different situations and practice what you plan. It is that pre-planning that will plant the seeds of the correct responses or at the very least, responses nearer to center so that fine-tuning your actions during the situation will likely be easier.

Remember, by investing in a few hours of training with your CFI and practicing what you have planned and learned, it becomes an investment in your safe flying future. Thus, if you plan ahead and practice what you plan, you may never have to worry about when normal isn’t.


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