A Tug of War: Normalcy and Overreaction Bias

Vicki Tan
3 min readMar 13, 2020

At this very moment, we are on the precipice of an explosion. The steps for mitigation have been made clear, yet we’re seeing a mixed response amongst family, friends, and acquaintances on the internet.

If you’re anything like me, you might be finding it difficult to align what you’re hearing externally to how you’re feeling internally. Even the facts from doctors and experts seem conflated. What do we do?

Perhaps one reason why we’ve been seeing such extreme differences in reactions — that of sluggishness or refusal to act, and another of worst-case scenario preparations — is that there are two opposing cognitive biases at play, pulling us in opposite directions. There is a tug of war is happening between the normalcy bias and the overreaction bias.

Normalcy bias

Our tendency to underestimate the likelihood and effect of rare disasters. This causes us to drastically underestimate the effects of the disaster, under-prepare, and assume everything will be all right.

Overreaction bias

Most of the time, these abnormal blips fizzle out and nothing happens. This causes us to think that our efforts to prepare for catastrophe were unnecessary, even though it was the prudent approach at the time.

What we can do

Yielding to the Normalcy bias has the highest cost. Simply hoping to resume normal activities, trying not to cancel events, and worrying about your investments is an individualistic short-term strategy, and has the potential to hurt more people in the end.

Instead, we must work harder to overcome the Overreaction bias. This is what’s fueling that stubborn voice in the back of our heads that’s wondering, “Is this really necessary?” This bias doesn’t doesn’t want us to miss something we’ve been looking forward to for months, or to waste money on rescheduling events or flights. It doesn’t want us to look paranoid or dumb.

By understanding the effects of the Overreaction bias, we can step away from them. By overcoming that voice, we can help save the lives of those at risk:

  • Follow the guidelines set for Social Distancing to help flatten the curve. When in doubt, remember that acting more conservatively will have less of a chance of hurting anyone.
  • Set an example for your social circle by being the first to suggest moving a hangout online rather than in person. Come up with a creative way to have lunch separately, at each other’s homes.
  • Read a book! Tackle that tsundoku (you know, that stack of books that you purchased but haven’t read) and make it more than a style or virtue signal.

Hey 👋 I’m Vicki! Thanks for reading. I wrote this quickly this morning, jetlagged, so please excuse any typos or poorly-worded sentences. If you liked reading about this, sans the real-life pandemic imperative, you might also enjoy learning about my project, a simple guide to cognitive biases.



Vicki Tan

Light sleeper, heavy dreamer. Design @Pinterest. Prev @Spotify @Headspace, @Lyft, @Google