Normalization of Deviance

An im­por­tant, on­go­ing part of the ra­tio­nal­ist pro­ject is to build richer men­tal mod­els for un­der­stand­ing the world. To that end I’d like to briefly share part of my model of the world that seems to be out­side the ra­tio­nal­ist can­non in an ex­plicit way, but which I think is known well to most, and talk a bit about how I think it is rele­vant to you, dear reader. Its name is “nor­mal­iza­tion of de­viance”.

If you’ve worked a job, at­tended school, driven a car, or even just grew up with a guardian, you’ve most likely ex­pe­rienced nor­mal­iza­tion of de­viance. It hap­pens when your boss tells you to do one thing but all your cowork­ers do some­thing else and your boss ex­pects you to do the same as them. It hap­pens when the teacher gives you a dead­line but lets ev­ery­one turn in the as­sign­ment late. It hap­pens when you have to speed to keep up with traf­fic to avoid caus­ing an ac­ci­dent. And it hap­pens when par­ents lay down rules but rou­tinely al­low ex­cep­tions such that the rules might as well not even ex­ist.

It took a much less mun­dane situ­a­tion for the idea to crys­tal­ize and get a name. Di­ane Vaughan coined the term as part of her re­search into the causes of the Challenger ex­plo­sion, where she de­scribed nor­mal­iza­tion of de­viance as what hap­pens when peo­ple within an or­ga­ni­za­tion be­come so used to de­viant be­hav­ior that they don’t see the de­viance, even if that de­viance is ac­tively work­ing against an im­por­tant goal (in the case of Challenger, safety). From her work the idea has spread to con­sid­er­a­tions in health­care, aero­nau­tics, se­cu­rity, and, where I learned about it, soft­ware en­g­ineer­ing. Along the way the idea has gen­er­al­ized from be­ing speci­fi­cally about or­ga­ni­za­tions, vi­o­la­tions of stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dures, and safety to any situ­a­tion where norms are so reg­u­larly vi­o­lated that they are re­placed by the de facto norms of the vi­o­la­tions.

I think nor­mal­iza­tion of de­viance shows up all over the place and is likely quietly hap­pen­ing in your life right now just out­side where you are both­er­ing to look. Here’s some ways I think this might be rele­vant to you, and I en­courage you to men­tion more in the com­ments:

  • If you are try­ing to es­tab­lish a new habit, reg­u­lar vi­o­la­tions of the in­tended habit may re­sult in a de­viant, skewed ver­sion of the habit be­ing adopted.

  • If you are try­ing to live up to an ideal (truth tel­ling, veg­e­tar­i­anism, char­i­ta­ble giv­ing, etc.), reg­u­larly tol­er­at­ing vi­o­la­tions of that ideal draws you away from it in a sneaky, sub­tle way that you may still claim to be up­hold­ing the ideal when in fact you are not and not even re­ally try­ing to.

  • If you are try­ing to es­tab­lish norms in a com­mu­nity, reg­u­larly al­low­ing norm vi­o­la­tions will re­sult in differ­ent norms than those you in­tended be­ing adopted.

Those men­tioned, my pur­pose in this post is to be in­for­ma­tive, but I know that some of you will read this and make the short leap to treat­ing it as ad­vice that you should aim to al­low less nor­mal­iza­tion of de­viance, per­haps by be­ing more scrupu­lous or less for­giv­ing. Maybe, but be­fore you jump to that, I en­courage you to re­mem­ber the adage about re­vers­ing all ad­vice. Some­times nor­mal­ized “de­viance” isn’t so much de­viance as an illeg­ible norm that is serv­ing an im­por­tant pur­pose and “fix­ing” it will ac­tu­ally break things or oth­er­wise make things worse. And not all de­viance is nor­mal­ized de­viance: if you don’t leave your­self enough slack you’ll likely fail from try­ing too hard. So I en­courage you to know about nor­mal­iza­tion of de­viance, to no­tice it, and be de­liber­ate about how you choose to re­spond to it.