In the aftermath of May’s Virginia Beach shooting, Ned Carlstrom told the New York Post that he not only encountered gunman DeWayne Craddock three times during the massacre but throughout the experience, he failed to comprehend that he was indeed part of an active shooter event.
“I either thought he was playing the part of the bad guy or playing the part of someone pursuing a bad guy,” Carlstrom told the Post.
Though Carlstrom saw his coworker with a gun in hand, the reality of the situation did not immediately register simply because the truth did not correspond with what he knew and expected. Since Carlstrom never anticipated his coworker would cause a shooting – “Nothing in (his) character would cause you to think, ‘This guy is going to come in and kill 11 of my colleagues…” – it took time before the danger sunk in, leaving Carlstrom at the mercy of a man with a gun.
Carlstrom’s reaction to the shooting isn’t unusual; rather it is a byproduct of normalcy bias, which causes people to overlook anything out of the ordinary – even potential threats to their life. Normalcy bias can be extremely dangerous, as it impedes individuals from understanding the gravity of a situation and acting quickly; instead it often causes them to freeze and remain in the moment of risk. Though DeWayne spared Carlstrom at Virginia Beach, the stakes of normalcy bias are indeed life and death, as evidenced by other disasters – 9/11 and school shootings, among others – that require quick reaction times.
Understanding the phenomenon of normalcy bias is the first step in overcoming it during life-threatening situations. The second step in managing a deadly situation is having a plan of escape. Knowing how you would react if a situation requires immediate action can counteract freezing and equip you to leave the situation ASAP. Maintaining situational awareness and recognizing your surroundings are also key to knowing how to act in moments of panic.
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