The Normalization of Deviance

There is a popular old anecdote about placing a frog into a pot of water. If the water is boiling, the frog immediately senses the danger and jumps right out. But if the water is cold and heats up slowly, the frog stays in the pot and boils to death, never realizing that the environment had become dangerous and life threatening.

Frequently, staff and regular jumpers at drop zones all across the country proclaim that their DZs are “super safe” and have great safety cultures. Thankfully, this is actually true at most drop zones. But USPA occasionally receives a complaint (usually from a visiting jumper or one of the regulars who suddenly had an epiphany) about a drop zone that most of the locals seem to think is very safe when it is actually operating in an unsafe manner. Why is that?

While there can be many causes for drop zones’ sub-standard safety levels—some intentional, some unintentional—a very common one is the normalization of deviance. In these cases, safety procedures and safety-focused attitudes began to slip somewhere along the way, maybe recently or maybe many years before. After a while, the lower standards became the new normal, and now nobody notices that the new normal is really freaking scary.

In her book “The Challenger Launch Decision,” Columbia University sociologist Dianne Vaughan theorized that normalization of deviance within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration led to the Challenger Space Shuttle accident. NASA left known safety issues uncorrected because they were not causing an immediate problem. When the conditions were right, the ignored defects led to the total destruction of the Challenger and its crew. If normalization of deviance can happen at NASA, you can bet it can happen at your local drop zone.

Here are some examples:

  • A regular staff member has never been that great of a tandem instructor. He exhibits lots of unstable exits and losses of altitude awareness. Some of his jumps have ended with reserve rides after the automatic activation device fired. But the drop zone continues to allow him to make tandem jumps because that’s just the way he is, and nobody has died yet!
  • A jumper is clueless under canopy and constantly cuts off other canopy pilots. He has been the source of dozens of close calls when he’s nearly collided with other jumpers under canopy. But everyone knows to stay the hell away from Crazy Larry under canopy, because he doesn’t pay attention and is dangerous. That’s just the way it is when he is on a load!
  • The engine on the jump plane spits and backfires all the time. The pilot always has to fiddle with it before it will run well enough for him to commit to a takeoff. But that’s the way it is every weekend—nothing new for us!—so it must be normal! Besides, we only need to worry about it until the plane gets to 1,000 feet, right?

These three examples from real drop zones show obvious safety problems that were easily identifiable if anyone had been paying attention. But those who became exposed to the safety deficiencies repeatedly over a long period of time couldn’t see the problem. The reduced level of safety became the standard mode of operation, and that’s just the way it was!

This weekend, take a look around your drop zone with a new mindset. Will you find any deficiencies in safety? Chances are you will find some examples of the normalization of deviance. It might be something blazingly obvious, or it might be something very subtle and hardly noticeable. If you find something, speak to your Safety and Training Advisor, drop zone owner or even your fellow jumpers. Be the frog who jumps out of the boiling water.

Jim Crouch | D-16979 | USPA Director of Safety and Training


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