How to Respond Quickly When Your World is Changing.

Stop Letting Normalcy Bias Hold You Back

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence,” Peter Drucker once said, “it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” And few things could describe our collective response to the Covid-19 crisis like desperately clinging to yesterday’s logic despite mounting evidence to the contrary. As William Halsey said that “all problems become smaller if you don’t dodge them, but confront them,” we’ve seen our response not only fail to contain this problem, but magnify the issue that we now face.

We all like to think of ourselves as calm in the face of crisis. We like to believe that when emergencies strike, we’d be the one to recognize the issue and take decisive action.

And maybe we would. It’s tough to know. Until we’ve actually been through it, who’s to say how any one of us would respond. When something unfolds that threatens all of your existing assumptions, would you respond with a clear head and an open mind? Or would you double-down on yesterday’s logic and refuse to adapt?

Would you recognize the problem immediately and respond? Or would you spend 70 days telling people that everything’s in control and that “it’s just the flu?”

As I said, it’s difficult to tell. But the answer, I think, depends on how well you can overcome your own normalcy bias.

On February 2, 1933, a leading newspaper for German Jews published an editorial comforting people that Hitler and the Nazis wouldn’t carry out their threats against the Jewish communities. They assumed that their current rights couldn’t be lost after they’d had them for so long, encouraging people to put faith in those protections that they’d come to know and trust:

“They will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob. They cannot do this because a number of crucial factors hold powers in check…and they clearly do not want to go down that road. When one acts as a European power, the whole atmosphere tends towards ethical reflection upon one’s better self and away from revisiting one’s earlier oppositional posture.”

All of us suffer from this same normalcy bias, which describes our tendency to believe that things will happen in the future in the same way that they’ve happened so far. It lets us ignore upcoming changes, and as a result, we’re often unprepared to deal with a changing world. In this way, we’re similar to the turkey that Nassim Taleb describes in The Black Swan,

“Consider a turkey that is fed everyday. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed everyday by friendly members of the human race ‘looking out for its best interests,’ as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.”

The first step is simply recognizing this tendency and being vigilant. Amanda Ripley, in The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why, shows that when sudden change hits we go through three phases of a response: denial, deliberation, and the decisive moment. And the faster we can come (effectively) through the denial and deliberation phases into a moment of action, the better off we are in a crisis.

As John Boyd’s famous OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop shows, whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives. Our challenge then is not to avoid denial and deliberation, but recognize their presence and come through them quickly.

“Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it,” Tyrion Lannister warned in A Game of Thrones. It’s difficult to acknowledge facts that don’t align to our current thinking. As flat-earthers, anti-vaccers, and climate change deniers have all learned, it’s much easier to just ignore those facts that threaten the way you currently see the world.

Karl Popper once wrote, “A theory is part of empirical science if and only if it conflicts with possible experiences and is therefore in principle falsifiable by experience.” Which means that in order for our position to be supported by science, there must be a possible way to disprove it. If this happens, then it will show that my current thinking isn’t true.

Most people conveniently leave this part out of their thinking. They rarely step back and consider what would need to happen to convince them that today’s perspectives are now outdated. After all, we spend a lot of time trying to construct positive self images of ourselves. It would be a shame to let something trivial like reality threaten that.

But while our rationalizations succeed in protecting our self-image, they come at the expense of ever really achieving it. Without recognizing the dichotomy between our actions and the surrounding reality, we never gain the urgency to change. And we doom ourselves to perpetually act with yesterday’s logic.

The solution is to adopt Carl Sagan’s final tenet in the fine art of baloney detection: “Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much.”

Be wary of times when you find yourself using superlatives (always, never, etc.). Things rarely occur at such extremes and it’s usually a sign that we’re closing our eyes to disconfirming evidence.

What would you need to see to change your mind? Recognizing this in advance is our best chance of coming through denial quickly. As Richard Feynman wrote,

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

“Deliberation, n.: The act of examining one’s bread to determine which side it is buttered on.” — Ambrose Bierce

The main function of normalcy bias is quite simple — it’s to make life easier on us. If things stay the same, our current views aren’t threatened. And if our views aren’t threatened, then we don’t need to make the hard decision to change.

But as poet and champion weightlifter Jerzy Gregorek put it, our best chance at a fulfilling life is through those hard choices,

In every difficult moment ask yourself, ‘What is a hard choice and what is an easy choice?’ and you will know instantly what is right.”

Which is easy to say and less easy to do. After all, they’re hard choices for a reason. And the whole point is to come through this quickly, especially in a crisis.

James Clear wrote that, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” And decision-making is no exception — approaching it with a systems mindset gives us a guide for coming through it quickly.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely suggests three strategies when we’re confronted with difficult decisions:

  • Consider yourself as an external adviser instead of the person making the decision. We’re usually able to solve other peoples’ problems because we see them from a more rational viewpoint.
  • Consider whether your decision would be consistent if it was a major event or a minor one. We tend to make exceptions for minor events yet it’s the minor events that add up to define our long-term standards.
  • Consider that you’re making this decision as a long-term rule instead of one-time instance. When we associate today’s decision with long-term behaviors and impacts, we’re more likely to act responsibly.

Making effective decisions often comes down to how we frame them. The quicker we can put ourselves in the right frame of mind to make a hard choice, the less time we waste in deliberation.

“There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.” — John F. Kennedy

When asked for what advice he’d impart to his 30-year-old self, Derek Sivers said, “Don’t be a donkey.” He was referring to the parable of Buridan’s donkey, which, upon finding himself an equal distance between a pile of hay and a bucket of water, is unable to choose and ultimately dies of both thirst and starvation.

Buridan’s donkey is unable to differentiate between its options. It falls victim to analysis paralysis and, unable to identify the best option, it can’t make a choice and move forward. And while few of us will ever die of starvation within this same predicament, the danger of continuing to analyze a problem for that perfect solution is one that we all fight every day.

Steve Blank, founder of E.piphany and author of The Startup Owner’s Manual, advocates “good enough” decision-making, recognizing that when we have a problem, our goal should be to come up with the best solution within the quickest timeframe. Similarly, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn encourages quick decisions, although his strategy is to make them on a provisional nature. As he advised in The Startup Playbook,

“When confronted with a problem, always make an immediate decision, but make it clear that it’s a provisional decision. The next task is determining what you need to know to make a final decision. In other words, what are the things that might cause you to change your mind? Once you know that, you can analyze those things in detail. But you should always make an initial decision within a very fast time frame.”

Both of these methods underscore the point that few decisions are irreversible. We may not know the exact best course of action right now. But we’re more likely to gain that insight from moving forward, testing our ideas, and learning as we go.

We tend to think of this cycle — denial, deliberation, and action — as a one-time sequence. But in order to come through it quickly, we need it to be more like a flywheel — where each cycle brings us a little closer to our end goal.

It’s tempting to retreat to the lab, analyze data for the next year, then make a call we can stand behind risk-free. Unfortunately, leadership is never risk-free. If we’re only leading people somewhere they’d go anyway, it doesn’t seem like we’re adding a lot of value.

Incrementally making these decisions lets us evolve with a crisis. It lets us learn with reality instead of trying to force reality into our outdated mental models. And it helps us move into that moment of decisive action as quickly as possible. Otherwise, we’re going to keep trying to manage today’s problems with yesterday’s logic.

I might be a top writer. It depends on the week.

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