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What We Can All Learn From the War in Ukraine

The horrific experiences of Ukrainians surprised by war can inform our thinking.

Key points

  • Pre-war opinion polls showed that few Ukrainians expected a full-scale Russian invasion.
  • This judgment error likely arose due to "normalcy bias," a cognitive tendency we all have to discount outlier events as normal.
  • The Ukrainian experience is an opportunity for all of us to "audit" our own lives, looking for normalcy biases that could cause trouble ahead.

Krakow Poland, May 2022

“I never thought such a thing was possible,” Dasha told us in the sunlit breakfast room of the sprawling hotel she’d called home for the past few weeks. A tall, slender IT worker in her 20s, with brown hair and thoughtful eyes that suggested a quick intelligence, Dasha was answering our question, “Did you expect the Russians to invade?”

“This is the 21st century, after all,” she continued. “So, when explosions woke me at 5:00 in the morning that first day in Kiev, I ran to the window, sure that the booms were something innocent, maybe a traffic accident or an exploding power line. But when I saw everyone else in neighboring apartments also looking out their windows and heard more booms, I realized the truth. I ran to the bedroom and shook my husband awake telling him the war had started. He swore, certain, as I had been just a few moments earlier, there was some other explanation.”

Dasha paused to reflect then shook her head “My mother was born in Russia and I have lots of Russian relatives. It’s still hard to believe they actually did this.” Letting out a sigh, she concluded, “Some of those relatives still don’t believe Russia violated us, even when we tell them the truth.”

 Eric Haseltine
Dasha with author & Chris Gilbert, M.D., Ph.D.
Source: Eric Haseltine

On our journey through France, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine to interview those most affected by the war—such as Dasha—we spoke with over two dozen Ukrainians, some who were refugees in neighboring countries, others still living in Ukraine who refused to leave. But whether the Ukrainians we spoke with chose to leave or stay, all of them were surprised by the invasion, and wondered how, in the 21st century, such barbarity was still possible.

Why Ukrainians were surprised when others weren’t

News reports and polls before the invasion confirmed our finding that most Ukrainians did not expect the invasion, even when President Biden said US intelligence strongly suggested otherwise

So, why were so many Ukrainians, who lived in the region, knew its history and were in frequent contact with relatives and friends in Russia, and thus presumably were in the best position to predict what would happen, so wrong when others, a continent and an ocean away, were right?

A likely answer can be found in a sub-discipline of cognitive psychology, which describes how we all make judgment errors—such as most Ukrainians did about the war—due to cognitive biases seemingly hardwired into our brains.

Especially relevant here is the so-called “normalcy bias” where our brains, while observing new events, unconsciously attribute the cause of those events (such as booms outside our window) to “normal” causes (such as car accidents). The normalcy bias also predisposes us to believe that the future will be “normal,” i.e., an extrapolation of the past and present, with no abrupt discontinuities, such as a sudden, wide-scale war.

Why our brains have such hard-wired biases

Although the normalcy bias probably explains why Ukrainians, being no different from the rest of us, misjudged the likelihood of war, the question remains: “Why do essentially all human brains make such potentially catastrophic judgment errors?”

Evolutionary psychologists, such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby at UC Santa Barbara, and cognitive psychologists such as Tversky and Kahneman, say that our brains evolved such “Darwinian scripts” and biases to help us quickly understand and act in a dangerous and uncertain world, in which there was no time to gather all available information and weigh all options. No: Our ancestors’ brains needed simple rules, based on probabilities, that gave quick, actionable answers (e.g., run towards that loud noise in the bush or away from it).

From this perspective, the normalcy bias makes a lot of sense, because it pushes our brains to quickly come up with the most likely explanations for what is going on around us and point us towards behaviors with the greatest odds of creating favorable outcomes. For instance, 99.999% of the time a loud boom nearby is innocent (thunder, traffic accident, garbage truck at work), so your brain’s normalcy bias protects you from the embarrassment and injury of diving under a table or panicking.

Thus the normalcy bias is normally a friend—but not always, as the Ukrainians learned.

How to know when the normalcy bias is your enemy

First, it is safe to assume that a normalcy bias likely is laying the foundation of future trouble in your life because this bias is pervasive in all human brains, and well, normal. The war in Ukraine is an opportunity for all of us to pause and ask, “In what ways am I in the same position as Ukrainians right before the invasion?"

More specifically, am I, owing to my normalcy bias, in denial that the war could dramatically and abruptly affect far more than the price of gas? Will the spread of the war to Europe crater the stock market and destroy a large chunk of my wealth? And what if Putin’s threats of nuclear retaliation against countries helping Ukraine are serious and my country actually gets nuked? Is my family prepared for such an emergency, with a plan of action and stores of food, water, medicine, generators, etc.?

If you are “normal,” and expect the future to be like the past, then probably not.

Beyond the current crisis with Russia, we all do fall prey to the normalcy bias in our day-to-day lives, leading us to stay too long in a company or industry that is doomed (e.g., home video rentals), in relationships that are bad for us, or to support political positions that made sense in the past, but in a fast-changing world, no longer make sense.

Maybe we experience a minor medical symptom, such as pain in our left shoulder, and assume it’s just one of the routine aches and pains that accompany aging, when in fact, the pain is far from “normal,” perhaps angina associated with serious heart disease.

Or, we may be addicts, believing our drinking or drug use is “social” or normal, swimming in what AA groups call “the river de-nial.”

Which begs the question, "If our brains are wired to view everything as normal and appropriate, including our own thoughts and behaviors, how can we know whether our own thoughts and behaviors are unproductive? How can our brain overcome its own flaws?"

The first answer is that it won’t always be possible to spot specific instances of such biases and to stop them from causing problems in your life. But you can, when a new event occurs (such as a war), instead of quickly dismissing it as a potential disruptor of the flow of “normal” life, stop a moment and question whether that event has realistic potential to steer your world in a decidedly abnormal direction.

Fortunately, however, sometimes there are ways to spot, and correct normalcy biases, not by tuning in to your admittedly flawed brain, but tuning into your body. How does your body feel as you drive to work, drive home to your spouse after work, or press the lever in the voting booth? Does it feel light and open, or heavy and tight? Our bodies usually know the truth, if we only know how to listen to them. Dr. Chris Gilbert gives different ways to listen to your body in the book The Listening Cure.

Another answer lies in the bodies of people around us. What do their body language and facial expressions tell us as they watch us engage in behaviors (drinking, complaining about work or spouses, etc.)? Is it light and open or heavy and burdened? Just as our bodies know the truth, the bodies of those closest to us also know the truth—if we only take time to notice what is in front of us.

How to combat the normalcy bias

So OK, you’ve tuned in to your body and the bodies of people you care about and gotten danger signs about your job or your life, whatever. What to do about it?

Again, tune into your body, this time as you imagine futures that depart from your “normal”: different jobs, different spouse, different friends, different house, city, etc. How does your body feel when each possibility comes to mind? Your feelings—and we literally mean physical sensations here—will guide you.

There is a very good reason that common expressions say “know your own heart" (which is part of your body), not "know your brain." Your body always knows the truth, while your brain usually only knows what’s ... normal.


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