Fear Bradycardia and the Normalcy Bias


“Didn’t you hear the old, Native American woman say something evil lurks in that there lake?” one of the great-looking people on the shore screams. Dougie ignores them, apparently unaware of the golden rule of modern cinema: Always listen to Native Americans, especially if they’re old and speak in hallowed tones. “You’ve gone too far, Dougie!” the great-looking people on the shore continue to shriek. “Come back!”

“C’mon, you chickens!” Dougie says, backstroking leisurely. “It’s fun, and there’s nothing evil out here!”

The music that cues Dougie’s impending doom spills out of the Dolby surround sound. A subtle roar follows, and those of us in the audience tense up. We grip the armrests so tight that our forearms flex. We join the gorgeous people on the shore, mentally screaming out warnings to Dougie, telling him to get out of the water. We then join the collective hysteria that erupts when the water of the lake begins to swirl.

“Dougie, please!” we shout in unison.

“Aw, shut it!” Dougie says, waving off the warnings. 

The trouble is the character actor who plays Dougie is unattractive and chubby. Those of us who have watched thousands of movies know movies, and we know casting. We knew Dougie’s role in this movie would meet an unfortunate demise.

The monster roars to an impossible height. Dougie looks up at it, and as his fate becomes apparent, he screams. Is the monster evil, or is it just hungry? We don’t know, and we don’t care. It’s going to eat Dougie, the comedic foil in our movie. The monster takes its time, so we can see the full breadth of its horror. It gnashes its teeth a little. It swivels its head about. It looks menacingly at Dougie. Dougie continues to look up and his screaming continues until the monster lowers onto him and bites Dougie’s head off. The idea that this macabre scene took a full thirty seconds leaves those of us who have watched too many horror movies nonplussed.

“Why didn’t he just move?” monster movie aficionados have asked for decades. “Why did he stay in the water, screaming, for thirty seconds? Why didn’t he even try to swim away?” We can live with the fact that the monster would naturally move through the water much quicker than Dougie, since the monster is aquatic and Dougie is not. We can also live with the fact that Dougie probably didn’t have much of a chance the moment he jumped into the water. Still, we horror movie aficionados would love, just once, to see victims do a little more to prove that they, like all humans share an inherent survival instinct.

When I later learned that actors have to stay on their mark, I was a little less disgusted with the actors who played Dougie roles. I still want them to move, but I now know they must obey the director who commands them to stay in a designated spots for the decapitation scene. This cliché scene may strike horror in some, but I would venture to say that either the terrified are under the age of 30, or they haven’t watched a thousand horror movies yet. For those of us who have crossed both thresholds, we know it’s just plain irrational that a person wouldn’t move or do something to get away from a menacing monster. We certainly wouldn’t just stand in one spot, looking up, screaming, at the person, place, or thing looking to seal our fate.

Author David McRaney argues this point though. He claims that not only are Dougie’s reactions normal, but they are closer to the truth than anything monster movie aficionados might expect. In McRaney’s incredible book, You Are Not so Smart, he suggests that the one conflicting detail of this monster scene that might counter how we think we would react in a similar moment of unprecedented horror is Dougie’s screaming.[1]

Those of us who are not as knowledgeable about psychology believe there are two basic reactions to catastrophic, chaotic moments: action and non-action. We break it down to those who act and those who choke. Those who act may also be broken down into two categories: The selfish who fight to save themselves and the martyrs who act in a heroic fashion to save others. Either way, casual, non-psychology types insist there are but two reactions to such situations. Either the individual involved in the situation does something to save their lives or they choke.

McRaney argues that there is a third reaction, though casual, non-psychology types are more apt to view this course of action as little more than an extension of choking. Psychologists call it fear bradycardia. The difference between fear bradycardia and choking is that a victim of fear bradycardia experiences a heart deceleration, as opposed to the acceleration we might expect in such a traumatic situation. An acceleration of the heart could lead a potential victim to fumble about and select an incorrect reaction, but a deceleration might lead one to freeze up in a manner some call attentive immobility. Fear bradycardia is a reflex, an involuntary, automatic instinct that often occurs in moments of unprecedented chaos and horror, heaped upon the unprepared.

Put succinctly, fear bradycardia is the idea that in our movie not only will Dougie not scream or scramble out of the way, he will reflexively stop moving and simply hope for the best possible outcome. The normal reaction one might have to surviving a plane crash, for example, is that we need a moment to gather the most terrifying thing that ever happened to us. We might also need a moment to come down from the horror of it, and the euphoria we experience when we realize we’re one of the survivors. The concept psychologists are describing, when they talk about the term fear bradycardia, goes one step beyond that. It suggests that we will remain frozen beyond the normal moment necessary to deal with the situation. It suggests that if the plane is on fire, in our scenario, and other survivors are screaming that the plane is going to blow, we might not do enough to assure our survival, as we will remain frozen hoping that this moment simply passes. This fear bradycardia reaction involves an automatic, involuntary instinct that exists in all of us. Some refer to this state as tonic immobility, but no matter the name, it falls under the umbrella of another psychological term, normalcy bias.

McRaney details several incidents in which people experienced fear bradycardia: an F5 tornado in Bridge Creek, Oklahoma, survivors of floods, and even the infamous 9/11 Trade Center terrorist incident.

According to some first responders, the one commonality in most similar tragedies is that victims wander about in a dreamlike state. These first responders say that their first responsibility is to shake survivors out of this state. For even if their world is falling down around them, most survivors shut down and go to a safe, more normal space in their minds, if no one is around to shake them out of it.

In the aftermath of the 9/11/01 terrorist action, most first responders spoke of the calm that evacuating survivors exhibited. They stated that most of the survivors obediently followed instructions, without any panic, allowing for a safe exit that ultimately saved many lives. The first responders we saw interviewed on the news stated that the heroic first responders provided a model for proper evacuation procedures.

Other first responders agreed with that sentiment, but they added that the unspoken sense of order among the survivors was so calm and quiet that it bordered on eerie. Very few survivors were screaming, they said, and though there wasn’t room to sprint, there is no record of anyone pushing, shoving, or doing anything out of the ordinary to get out of the burning, soon to be falling buildings. There is no record of survivors complaining about the slow, orderly exit, or attempting to find their own alternative exit, if there was one available. We might think these are normal, human reactions to such a horrific episode, but the limited records we’ve found suggest no such incidents occurred.  

McRaney cited some of the accounts first responders of 9/11/01 reports of some survivors taking a couple extra, crucial moments to complete the log-out procedures on their computers. Before following the instructions of first responders, some even gathered their coats. Others engaged in mundane conversations, with their coworkers on the way out of the office, in a manner we might deduce helped them achieve some level of normalcy amidst the chaos.

Those of us on the outside looking in might view this as lunacy. If I were in that situation, we might think, I’d be running, screaming, and I might be crying. I might even knock an old lady down in my departure, but I would do everything I could to get out. I don’t care what this author says I’m all about survival brutha.

Television shows and movies depict such drama on a regular basis, and we’ve all watched such drama and trauma play out on our screens, be it some horror flick with a monster and a Dougie or our favorite cable news program. We’ve all placed ourselves in the shoes of the characters involved in such stories, and we list how we would do things differently. We’ve all shouted these condemnations at our various screens when the Dougies just sit there as a monster nears them, and we all know how we would’ve reacted before the menacing monster bites our head off. The central question of McRaney’s thesis, however, is this: While we might think we know how we would act, unless we’ve experienced such a moment in our lives we can never really know.

“If you haven’t,” McRaney writes, “you can never know how prepared you will be, and you can never know how you’ll react. The ideas we have about how we will react may be lies we’ve told ourselves so often that we might end up not knowing the actual truth after it’s too late to rectify it.”

Shutting down computers, gathering coats, and having mundane conversations are automatic, involuntary responses that occur because of this dream-like, faux normal state we defer to when it becomes clear that no amount of rationalizing will ever render the horrific, unprecedented, chaotic moment normal. We shut down to block out the flood of external stimuli that might otherwise cause us further panic.

“The people in the World Trade Centers on 9/11 had a supreme need to feel safe and secure,” McRaney writes. “They had a desire to make everything around them go normal again in the face of something so horrific that their brains couldn’t deal with it in a functional manner.”

As stated previously, most casual, non-psychology types might characterize this as choking in the clutch, but McRaney states that it goes beyond this, because they do not freeze as a response to panic. “It’s a reflexive incredulity,” McRaney writes, –attributing the term to Amanda Ripley– “that causes you to freeze up in a reflexive manner. This reflexive incredulity causes you to wait for normalcy to return beyond the point where it’s reasonable to do so. It’s a tendency that those concerned with evacuation procedures –the travel industry, architects, first responders, and stadium personnel– are well aware of, and they document this in manuals and trade publications.”

Sociologists McRaney cites say, “You are more prone to dawdle if you fail to follow these steps and are not informed of the severity of the issue.” Failing to gain the necessary information leads to speculation and to the inevitable comparisons and contrasts of other more familiar incidents.

Men, in particular, seem to have an almost imbedded desire to rationalize fear away. Fear, by its very nature is irrational, and most men feel it incumbent upon them to keep fear a rationalization away. In the face of a tragedy that alarms most, the rational, no fear, man is prone to say, “It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as a previous experience I once had?”

Their preferred culprit for unwarranted fear is the media and politicians. The media wants viewers, and politicians want voters, so they pound horrific details home to keep us afraid and focused on them and their efforts to investigate and rectify. All of this is true, but it’s also true that the terrorist incident on 9/11/01 was one of the most horrific to ever happen in our country.

I add politics to this discussion to illustrate the mindset of those who rationalize horror away. They do so to lighten the load such an incident might have on their minds if they don’t find a way to deal with it. The problem arises when they face the type of horror they’ve rationalized away for most of our lives. At that point, they fall back on what they know, hoping to normalize the incident in such a way that they can deal with it in terms with which they are more familiar, until it becomes apparent that the incident is far worse than anything their rational mind could imagine.

To those who suggest, “There are “politics at play here”, and we should all start viewing the hype of politicians and media players as nothing more than hype.” I say this is a rationalization in and of itself. Most of us recognize that some media outlets and politicians make their bones on promoting fear, but at times, a bit of fear –an emotion capable of igniting awareness– might save our life.

For these reasons and others, it is crucial for a city facing an ensuing crisis to allow the local media to inundate us with reports of that impending storm, because the media needs to help us redefine our norm. It is also a reason for those of us who make fun of our friends for paying attention to the flight attendant’s pre-flight instructions, to drop our macho façades and listen. We may also want to drop the pretense that as frequent flyers we are prepared for anything. We must redefine our sense of normalcy in preparation for the many things that could go wrong in the air or upon our return to ground.

In spite of McRaney’s findings, I still find it hard to believe that the movie scenes that depict the near-catatonic reactions Dougie displayed as the monster neared him are closer to the truth than I am about how most people will react. I live with the belief that a survivor’s instinct will kick in for anyone facing impending doom. As those dumb enough to corner a badger into a corner know, most beings will do whatever it takes to survive, and I believe that the human being, regardless how chubby or unattractive they are, have that same instinct. The difference might be that the badger hones those skills more frequently, but we’ve all experienced mini-disasters and personal traumas in our lives, and most people have a decent batting average when it comes to reacting to them. Will that be enough to avoid experiencing fear bradycardia, tonic immobility, reflexive incredulity, or any of the normal bias tendencies we have in the wake of a horrific incident? We don’t know, and we won’t know until the decisive moment reveals if we are so ill prepared that we fall prey to automatic and involuntary instincts that result from lying to ourselves for so long that we will end up rationalizing ourselves to death.

[1]McRaney, David. November, 2011. You Are Not So Smart. New York, New York. Penguin Group (USA) Inc.