Blog: The Normalization of Deviance

Drew Hardesty

In the aftermath of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster, a great deal of effort and resources went into finding out and understanding What Went Wrong.  Seven astronauts were killed and the event put a dent into the country's collective confidence in NASA, to put it mildly.  Ultimately, the blame was pinned upon the O-rings - or more specifically the putty used in concert with the O-rings - for improperly sealing in the gases used for the solid rocket boosters, leading to the explosion.  In her 1996 book, The Challenger Launch Decision : Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, the sociologist Diane Vaughan argued that the problem was much more complicated and that it had perhaps less to do with a contractor's putty than with something she called the Normalization of Deviance.  

As she described it, the Normalization of Deviance refers to an individual or organization's tendency to cut corners or take short-cuts, perhaps initially by accident and then through intention, as these "new" procedures result in no negative feedback ("non-event feedback") or untoward result(s). And, over time, these deviated-from original policies become the new norm.  The interesting thing is that - again, over time - the individual or organization sees this as normal ("this is how we do it"); whereas someone from outside of the individual/organization/culture would be shocked at what they saw.  

Which brings us to backcountry skiing and riding.  Many of us go into the backcountry for the Freedom of the Hills and to assume our own risk, rather than paying others to mitigate the risk for us.  It may be that many of us understand this idea of Acceptable Risk as it pertains to our own safety and how our own shortcuts may lead us to Drift into Failure, particularly with Persistent or Deep Slab instability, avalanche problems famous for "non-event feedback".  

What fewer realize is the extent that our decisions result in consequences for the community at large.  The collective Acceptable Risk.  Diane Vaughan posits that being clear about standards and expectations and fostering a culture of "we" over "me" that favors responsibility and obligation to the (backcountry) community goes a long way in side-stepping the Normalization of Deviance.  

What might be our Challenger disaster?  

  • Losing or having terrain above the roads in the Cottonwood canyons severely restricted.
  • Requiring a backcountry permit system to head into the backcountry
  • Negligent homicide.  Triggering an avalanche that pulls a house off its foundation or crosses the open road.  

The best disaster is the one that never happens.


Drew Hardesty,

Forecaster, Utah Avalanche Center 


Amen Brother!
Fred Staff
Tue, 3/22/2016
Id love a permit system, we can teach people to ski fall line
Richard Pumpington
Wed, 3/23/2016
<p>I&#39;d sooner lose my mind that my sense of humor. &nbsp;Good stuff.</p>
Wed, 3/23/2016
Thanks for the thoughts. I'm surprised that there is no mention of the in-house engineers that worked on the project that said don't fly, it's too cold and the rings wouldn't hold. Sometimes there are "inner" voices that aren't listened to, and that spcertainly applies to being in avalanche terrain. Just trickier to predict since we don't design the snowpack. The consequences of our actions always effect the greater community, but individual(and corporate, perhaps)wants and bravado trump all that. As long as we have a culture that feels that individual wants are what matter most and the "bc" is merely a playground to be used, we will continue to see all sorts of behavior in the bc that offend and can be dangerous to others. Technology, fitness, marketing and the consequent explosion of users are causing the problem. So, if self policing doesn't work, it seems logical that if there is a serious enough safety issue, some sort of restrictions would be put in place. But, this would only work in those areas that would be easily policed(S side of LCC and some areas of BCC?). Don't really understand how you could have a permit system to regulate bc users unless it was a system designed to limit numbers in particular areas and at certain times like what happens in Zions and The Wave. But, poaching still happens. There could be a charge for such permits, I'm sure. Also, the scenario in Suicide last week might be problematic for assigning negligent homicide if the person approaching the bottom of the chute was not visible to those above and had been killed. How does one assign fault in that situation? Again, permits could be limited to number, time frame, day if this is a problem. Or, people just accept the consequences given certain situations. So, the slide has to hit a building, car or bus to be negligent homicide assuming someone dies? What about liability for property damage? Should we consider liability insurance for the bc and we're all erequired to have it? I'll stop. I imagine all of this has been discussed and more. So what has been discussed for the Wasatch? Diane Vaughn's suggested remedy is nothing new. The problem is how to change the behavior and have a different ethic, if you will, with regards to being in the bc together. These essays and blogs of wisdom by bc rippers seem to be a gentle nudge to get people thinking about consequences and possible punitive measures. I'm curious as to the response so far and how many are being reached. Maybe something to figure out in the design of the UAC website?
Wed, 3/23/2016
Love it. So many applications.
Christian Sante...
Wed, 3/23/2016
Nailed it my friend, I guess allot more people means allot more rules, or how about some good old fashion common sense
Mark white
Wed, 3/23/2016