For a defensive minded person, potential threats to the well-being of you and your family are always near the forefront of your mind. Whether you’re walking down a dimly lit New York City alleyway or trudging up the steep and well-worn mountain path behind your wooded home, there are dangers to consider and mitigate if you want to ensure a long and fruitful life — and it’s this mindset that prompts many to carry their own iteration of the common Everyday Carry (EDC) loadouts. A concealed pistol, a good quality pocket knife, a flashlight, and for those who tend to be particularly well prepared, a tourniquet are all fairly common things to find in the day pack of a guy like me, but in the grand scope of survival, none of the stuff I have strapped to my waist or stashed in a backpack in my trunk matter nearly as much as the simple matter of objective observational awareness.

Life or death situations are tricky — particularly because you very rarely know you’re going to be in one until you’re already right in the thick of it. In those moments, split second decisions can mean the difference between life or death but most people aren’t mentally prepared to make those sorts of decisions because of a simple mental crutch we big-brained monkeys tend to cling to called normalcy bias.

What is normalcy bias?

Put simply, normalcy bias is our natural inclination to assume the best about a threatening situation because the breadth of your experience tells you that things will turn out fine. Leading a predominately safe life (as most of us do here in the United States) establishes a mental norm within our minds, leading many to underestimate the severity of a situation or the likelihood of a negative outcome. Normalcy bias doesn’t manifest in a slow rejection of the situation at hand, but as a delay in your processing of what’s going on around you. In the moment, with a threat approaching, many hush away their gut instincts, dismissing their concerns as paranoia: after all, what are the chances that the threatening looking character ten feet back and closing is actually a bad guy? What is the likelihood that the bag that kid left in the street is actually a bomb? That car can’t really be trying to run over pedestrians… can it?

That momentary unwillingness to accept the likelihood that your life is in danger is often the last thing that goes through a victim’s mind just before the worst happens — “I never thought this would happen to me.”

How do you overcome it?

Combating normalcy bias is one of the few tactical skill sets you can practice by yourself, inside your head, with no gear or equipment. The secret isn’t to live in a constant state of paranoia, but rather to legitimate practice maintaining an objective mindset when assessing the threats around you. If you have a bad feeling about a situation, don’t dismiss it as nonsense, engage with it. If you notice something out of the ordinary, chastise yourself for not keeping your distance, rather than for allowing your concerns to get the best of you.

It’s not a coincidence that many veterans learn to shy away from crowds and choose seats that allow them to keep an eye on the crowd: it’s not because they expect something bad to happen, it’s because they’ve seen bad things happen, and accept that they can. For many who have lived their entire lives within the relative safety and comfort of the American way of life, it can be harder to embrace this mindset. After all, if a you’ve never seen a gunman open fire on a crowd, it can be difficult to assume that’s what’s about to happen right before your eyes, even as the killing begins. That split second of hesitation keeps you, and those with you, in the line of fire, prevents you from responding with appropriate force when possible, and, chances are, may cost you your life.

In the moments before an attack, all you have to go on are your instincts and suspicions. Focus on managing them without disregarding them. (Image courtesy of MaxPixel)

And when I say, “split second,” I really mean it. National statistics show that the average time a police officer has to mentally justify the use of their weapon is just .21 seconds in simple scenarios and .87 seconds in more complex ones. On average, it takes about 1.19 seconds to draw a firearm from an open carry, friction retention holster, and longer from a concealed one. In total, we’re talking about a gun fight lasting between 2-3 seconds in close quarters — leaving very little room for complacency born out of assumptions.

Actively combating normalcy bias in your everyday life can mitigate the effects of our inclination to assume things are fine — demand a level of attentiveness in yourself until it becomes second nature. Trust your gut and act before something bad happens. It may be inconvenient to get the hell out of the mall when you spot someone looking nervous and fumbling with what could be a weapon inside their backpack… but inconvenienced beats dead any day. When armed, being aware of a possible threat and mentally preparing to draw your weapon if necessary can mean drawing and using the weapon quicker than you would if taken by surprise.

Don’t approach possible threats in a constant state of paranoia, but rather approach daily life like you might when merging on a congested highway: stay alert and be prepared to react.

Because you’ve only got to be wrong once to lose your life.