Normalcy Bias and the Aftermath of Crime
Normalcy bias is a term that refers to a person’s inability to react properly in times of crisis; instead, acting as if everything is normal. Now I’m no psychologist, and while this condition is primarily related to disasters, it seems to me that criminals can have similar reactions during the events surrounding the commission of a crime. In some ways a crime like murder is a kind of disaster in that actions are dramatic, adrenalin is ramped up, and things rarely go as planned. Most murderers don’t have a lot of personal experience with killing to draw upon and the emotions and reactions they experience may be very foreign to them to say the least. Their brain has a hard time processing this new data and they revert to common behaviors as their brain attempts to operate in this chaos.
Some may call it a lack of focus, others may refer to it as tunnel vision, but that is only one part of the phenomenon. I think the bigger part is conditioning. Allow me to provide an example. It is not uncommon for a rapist to throw a condom away in the bathroom trash can after a rape. I remember seeing that for the first time and being blown away. Why? Why leave something so incriminating right on top for the police to find? Of course, one possibility is that the rapist didn’t believe he committed a rape and therefore had nothing to hide. But that can’t account for all of the occurrences. Additionally, criminals tend to throw away other kinds of incriminating evidence such as weapons, clothing, documents, etc in readily accessible trash cans as well.
I once saw a case where a man committed a rape homicide and while walking away from the crime scene left key evidence linking him to the crime in a dumpster in the alley behind the victim’s home. Did he really not think the police would search there? It’s not like he drove it into another jurisdiction or made any attempt to destroy it. Hell, he didn’t even try to hide it under other trash. So why would a criminal act in such a manner?
Again, not being a psychologist I can’t say what goes through every criminal’s mind but it seems to me that people are conditioned to perform certain acts with regularity (like discarding unwanted objects in a trash can) and in times of stress our consciousness engages in a kind of auto-pilot mode where we perform these acts without consideration. Undoubtedly, the criminal is not thinking about what might become of the evidence. The unwanted items are in the trash, never to be seen by him again, or so he thinks.
In some ways I think it’s like the routines we perform day in and day out. The route we take to work, the websites we open in a particular order, where we go to lunch. All of these things can become so repetitive that they seem to happen as part of a pre-ordained plan. So why should criminals act any differently?
Now in a novel it makes for a much better story to have a savvy criminal. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that even criminals can behave in ways that defy common sense and while engaging in these “normal” activities they may leave behind clues for your even savvier protagonist. Maybe they have to go outside for a smoke and then simply drop it on the ground. Maybe they have to go to their neighborhood bar for a drink and wash-up their bloody hands in the bathroom. There are a lot of possibilities to consider using but throwing incriminating evidence in the trash is one of the most common I have seen.