Normalization of deviance is a term used to describe the gradual process in which deviance from correct, proper or acceptable behavior becomes normalized or acceptable. As the deviant action is repeated without catastrophe, it becomes the norm for the individual or organization.
The term was originally used to describe the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. NASA repeatedly flew the space shuttle despite knowing there was a design flaw (i.e., the booster rocket’s O-rings failed in cold weather). The design flaw never caused a problem until the shuttle was launched in weather that dipped too cold. The shuttle broke apart after 73 seconds into flight, and all seven astronauts died.
The term “normalization of deviance” continues to be used today, because non-compliance continues to be a large factor in modern mishaps from small (e.g., employees developing their own IT workarounds) to big (e.g., Shuttle Columbia, Costa Concordia). Reflecting on one’s own habits and practices may result in greater safety compliance.
Self-reflection. Consider your run-of-the-mill highway drive. The posted speed limit is 65 mph, but traffic is flowing at, say, 75 mph. What speed do you drive? This is not a trick question.
Consider what you would do once traffic disappeared. Do you stick with 65 mph, or, if you started with 75 mph, do you slow down?
What if an air support pilot successfully lands a Bell 206B3 JetRanger in 22 knots of crosswind (despite knowing the maximum demonstrated crosswind velocity is 17 knots for that particular airship)? Should the police pilot think: “I was lucky that nothing bad happened! I’m not going to do that again!” Or: “I did it! I pulled it off! I can do this from now on.”
Would your answer change if the same pilot did this a second time? What would you think if you were the tactical flight officer (TFO) on that flight, and your life was dependent on the police pilot’s decision-making?
Consider an officer who gets pulled over for speeding off duty (or, say, an off-duty DUI). Do you think that officer should be given professional courtesy by other law enforcement officers? If so, do you think that off-duty officer would engage in the same behavior again? Do you know of officers to whom this has happened and had their careers ended because they were injured so badly that they could no longer work, or they killed other drivers and went to prison? What is really the purpose of you stopping citizens for speeding violations or DUI?
Luck is not proficiency. Often individuals or work groups conclude it was superior skill on their part, not luck. Hence, they often proceed to repeat the same non-compliant actions because, well, they don’t think they are lucky; they think they are better (more skilled, more proficient) than others. This is a cognitive pitfall. In turn, what used to feel wrong is now normal SOP for the individual or organization.
How to protect yourself:
- Prove that you are safe. Search for proof that you are engaging in safe actions. Do not resort to searching for evidence that you are not safe. What if the burden of proof was on you? It might be one day.
- Halt any rationalizations. Self-rationalizations tend to be easily spotted, because there is usually a “but” in there. For example, “the speed limit is 65, but traffic is flowing at 75.” “He hit me, but it was only with an open hand, so it’s not abuse.” “I had three beers after work, but I’m OK to drive home.”
- Be the antidote to hazardous attitudes. The anti-authority attitude may look like: “Don’t tell me what to do” or “I don’t have to follow the rules.” One antidote is: “Rules are in place for a reason; they help ensure safety.” Impulsivity might look like: “Let’s do it quickly” or “let’s not do it at all,” as opposed to “think it through first.” An attitude of invulnerability might look like: “It won’t happen to me” as compared to “it could happen to me.” Machismo often looks like: “I can do it.” The antidote could look like: “Take no chances.” An attitude of resignation can look like: “What’s the use?” But you should always believe the antidote: “Who I am makes a difference.”
- Listen to experts. You may be the best expert on yourself, but all of us have blind spots even in that arena, let alone in life’s other matters. Humble yourself. Recognize others have something to offer even when you are BMOC — big man on campus.
- Listen to skeptics. Humans tend to overvalue beliefs that align with their own. Skeptics help create clarity about an issue. It can be argued that the opinion of skeptics should be given more weight in any due diligence process because it helps mitigate risk. Even if you really are the expert on a given issue, the skeptics may be the only line of protection to stop you from inviting life-changing catastrophe.
- Comply with regulations. Do not be a rogue operator. Do not try to change the regulations midstream for yourself. Obedience is the source of courage and fortitude. How would you explain your actions to internal affairs?
- Solicit feedback. Silence from others is not agreement. Seek the input of your teammates and chain of command. You wouldn’t breach a home to rescue hostages without huddling with your team first, thinking through all potential outcomes and minimizing known risks.
- Speak up! If you are the one who is uncomfortable, do not remain silent. Be a positive role model for open communication on your team.
Murphy’s Law is wrong. What can go wrong does not always go wrong. When something goes right, it does not necessarily mean that you were right or OK to take the action that you did. The end does not justify the means. Do not judge your actions solely by the outcome. Judge your actions based on compliance with the rules and regulations. Serve with fidelity, humility, obedience and love for the community you protect and serve.
Be safe! Be well!