In my first investigation into the health effects in the Gulf, data was sparse and the demonstrable health effects were mostly anecdotal. Today, we are beginning to see some very early trend curves with regard to health and the trends are frightening. However, I am afraid that the emerging health data will fall upon deaf ears. In fact, it is more likely that non-Gulf Coast residents will readily see the dangers before the actual victims in the Gulf. Subsequently, I am predicting that many in the Gulf who read this series on the Gulf will not be grateful that someone is willing to spend their time, without pay, to expose the omnipresent dangers in the Gulf. Rather, most in the Gulf Coast region who read any part of this series will react with strong anger and deny that there is even the hint of a problem. I predict that the comments section connected to my articles will demonstrate a volatility and hostility that will not be present in any other article that I have written. Why? This is because people from the Gulf Coast region will do so because of what psychologists call the normalcy bias.
Before I present the emerging hard data and the myriad of health effects in the Gulf, it is first important to examine the psychology of a crisis and why many in the Gulf have passively accepted their fate despite the omnipresent health effects. Recently, on my talk show, a Louisiana resident said that the crisis was not that bad despite having stated earlier in the same interview that nearly everyone they knew was sick and “stayed sick” since the Gulf oil spill. This person was demonstrating what has become known as the normalcy bias and most people in the Gulf are afflicted with this condition.
Before the hard data is presented on the health effects in the Gulf (Part Three), this portion of the series will examine the psychology connected to the Gulf oil spill and it will become obvious why most people in the Gulf are ignoring the dangers.
Normalcy Bias and the Gulf
Please allow me to first ask every Gulf resident who has followed the Fukashima event a question. Do you think the people living within 50 miles of the nuclear power plant should have immediately moved following the event? Most people that I know would say yes. It is easier to answer to say yes when it is not you that has to pack up everything, try and sell the home, find new work, find a new place to live and resettle the children into a new school. If you are involved in the event, your brain begins to look for disconfirming reasons which deny the seriousness of the event so that you can continue on with your life with as little of disruption as possible.
We know Fukashima was, and is, a deadly event. Why then, did most Japanese stay? They stayed for two reasons. The government adopted the position that is a dishonorable act to question the government when the government says it is safe to remain near Fukashima. This is a cultural factor not commonly found in the United States. However, the second factor involved in why the Japanese are staying and dying is common to most people and it is due to what psychologists call the normalcy bias. In short, the normalcy bias causes people to deny a danger whose effects are already in progress. Secondly, the normalcy bias also causes people to underestimate the effects of a danger once the event can no longer be denied.
The normalcy bias came into play in Japan and the normalcy bias has also come into play in the Gulf Coast region. As I publish my findings in this and subsequent parts of this series, I know that the comments section from people in the Gulf will loudly criticize my findings more than people from anywhere else in the country and this is due to the normalcy bias.
Research On Normalcy Bias
Personnel who are deeply concerned with evacuation procedures, such as first responders, architects, stadium employees and in the travel industry are keenly aware of normalcy bias and write about it in their training manuals and trade journals.
In a 1985 paper published in the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, sociologists Shunji Mikami and Ken’Ichi Ikeda at the University of Tokyo (Kakuko Miyata. 1985, Mass Media Reporting on a False Alarm. Journal of Mass Communication Studies. No.34, pp. 193-213. Japanese Society of Mass Communication, Tokyo. Osamu Hiroi ,Shunji Mikami & Kakuko Miyata 1985, A Study of Mass Media Reporting in Emergencies. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, No.3, pp.21-49.) identified the steps one is likely to go through in a disaster.
1. Disaster victims have a tendency to first interpret the situation within the context of what one is familiar with and to greatly underestimate the severity of the danger. Unfortunately, this is the moment, when a few precious seconds count, is when normalcy bias costs lives.
2. People in danger will seek information from those that they trust first and then move on to those nearby for further advice. This results in another time delay which costs lives.
3. Next, there is a tendency to try to contact family members if possible in order to seek advice.
4. Then and only then, one will begin to prepare to evacuate or seek shelter.
I think there is no question that when the mainstream media over-hypes events such as Y2K, swine flu, SARS, this helps to fuel the normalcy bias on a global scale. With so much of the media crying wolf, it can be difficult to determine when to be alarmed, when it really is not a drill. BP, through their incessant network television commercials and public service announcements have added to the normalcy bias in the Gulf by promoting the fiction that all is well.
Delaying Defensive Action Can Prove Deadly
Why won’t they help themselves? Why don’t they just leave? Undoubtedly, many Gulf Coast residents see the dangers and have taken action. However, most have not and I think it is important to answer these questions before sharing the scientific data which demonstrates how bad the conditions are in the Gulf.
According to a 2001 study by sociologist Thomas Drabek, people who are told to leave in anticipation of a hurricane or flood, waste precious time and check with four or more sources such as family, newscasters and officials, before deciding on a course of action. On 9/11, at least 70% of survivors spoke with other people before trying to leave, the NIST study shows.
There is a biological reason why people engage in the normalcy bias. It is commonly known that it takes 8–10 seconds to process new information. The stress associated with a serious event slows the reaction process. Further, when the brain cannot find an acceptable response to a situation, it often fixates on a single and sometimes default solution, which may or may not be correct. An evolutionary reason for this response could be that paralysis gives an animal a better chance of surviving an attack. It is commonly known that predators are less likely to eat prey that isn’t struggling. Therefore, if we remain calm and appear oblivious, the danger may pass over us.
Most of the people who died on 9/11, in the Twin Towers, were above the crash zone of the planes and were unable to find a way to safety. However, National Institute of Standard Technology (NIST) investigators are only now beginning to understand the actions and psychology of the thousands who had a chance to escape to calamity and did not. The NIST report found that the people who made it safely out of the World Trade Center, waited an average of 6 minutes before escaping as this data was drawn from new National Institute of Standards and Technology study in interviews with nearly 900, 9/11 survivors. The research demonstrated that some people left fairly quickly while others lingered for as long as 30 minutes. Eventually, there was no denying the danger as everyone saw smoke and smelled the jet fuel. Amazingly, even after the crisis was evident to all, most people called relatives and approximately a thousand people took the time to shut down their computers according to the NIST report.
Is There An Antidote to Normalcy Bias?
The solution to normalcy bias, according to Mikami, Ikeda, and other experts, is repetition on the part of those who can help and can subsequently have an impact in creating a paradigm shift. Repeating the warnings often enough, along with giving instructions, can create a new set of realities and can, therefore, become the “new normal”, and people will subsequently act in a timely fashion. The problem with creating an atmosphere which overcomes normalcy bias, and when precious seconds can make a difference between life and death, there may not be enough time to experience this paradigm shift.
Later parts in this series will irrefutably present data which clearly demonstrates that the health of 30-40 million people is imperiled. We have already lost nearly three years in waking Gulf Coast people up. As the reader will see, the dangers are dramatic and cannot be overstated. The impact is both immediate and long term in its effects.
The toxicity of both the oil and the Corexit sprayed to “contain” the oil spill are deadly. The effects are cumulative. As I noted, we have already lost three years in which people are being exposed on an ever-increasing basis. However, I feel that if we can raise awareness as to the dangers, we can still save lives. It is safe to say that the toxins, in the Gulf, are in the air, the water in the food and in the blood of many people in the Gulf.
The health trends are so disturbing that if I lived in the Gulf region, I would immediately move my family and hope that we got out in time to avoid the various cancers and other assorted deadly illnesses resulting from this event. I know of people in the Gulf who are trying to sell their homes and move. My advice to them would be to sell their homes from their new location. Take a loss, if need be. I would let my home go into foreclosure before spending another three deadly years in the Gulf. In this series, the reader will see that these effects are not dissipating. Yes, the beaches appear cleaner. However, that is due to the fact that Corexit does not break up oil slicks as the media is inaccurately reporting. The Corexit merely buries the oil beneath the surface where its impact on marine life and our food supply is more dramatic.
Not every Gulf Coast resident is a passive recipient of their fate. However, most residents are in denial, up to 70% if the research is correct, and they will continue to accept their fate. This is tragic and I hope that by calling attention to the dangers, we can reduce the passivity level among the potential victims and increase the longevity for many of these residents.