The Normalization of Deviance

December 8, 2023

Last week I shared a clip on Instagram about one of my favorite mental models.

I learned this concept in the early days of my military aviation career, and found it so useful that I have carried it forward and still apply it in nearly every area of my life.

This concept is the Normalization of Deviance.

Here ‘s how it works: when we create a standard, invariably at some point we will deviate from that standard, both by accident and sometimes intention. When we deviate, if we don’t correct the error in the moment, the likelihood that we will repeat the error increases. Once we start to repeat the deviant behavior, we normalize this deviation as the new standard. The deviation then becomes the norm; hence the name.

Think of it like a grown up version of the childhood game of telephone. One child whispers a phrase to the person next to them, then they repeat it to their neighbor, and so on. Each child has their own interpretation and thus passes it on with their own spin. Hilarity ensues when the final child reveals their phrase, usually not even remotely resembling the original.

This is the normalization of deviance personified.

From an aviation perspective, think of a checklist. When starting up our F-18/F Super Hornet, we would pull out the checklist and touch the switches in the same order every single time, whether it was our first flight or our thousandth. However, every now and then a careless pilot may merely feign reading the checklist – after all they know it by heart at this point. They skip a switch, or flip one out of order. Perhaps on this day there is no consequence.

The danger is when this new deviant behavior becomes ingrained as habit. Let’s say after a few weeks, they start flipping a second switch out of order, and then after a few months start skipping one altogether. Now their habit pattern is three standard deviations away from the norm. There are countless tales of Class A mishaps (including the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger) that have been attributed to this phenomenon.

Have you ever heard the 1 in 60 rule of the plane flying one degree off course? Over the first mile the error is imperceptible. However, as the flight goes on the error compounds. After six hours at typical cruising speed, the plane ends up 50 miles off course!

But the normalization of deviance isn’t just useful in the cockpit.

Consider this business case: we create an SOP for our administrative assistant to check the mail, sort the checks for deposit, and set aside any mail that requires a response.

This was exactly what I did with our first-ever hire at Palmares, my energy investment firm. We went from a two-man shop of just my partner and I handling everything – now I was a real business owner! I was delegating like a grown-up, so I could focus on higher-value tasks.

All was well until one day I was searching for a stapler and happened to open our assistant’s desk drawer. Inside I found a stack of mail – mail I had never seen. I flipped through it, thinking it must be junk. But a particular letter caught my eye, from the oil and gas operator who paid us royalties for a property we owned. We had just purchased a huge deal for us at the time – it was doing over $50,000 per month in revenue.

This letter contained a request for more information regarding the transfer of ownership. Our new assistant read the letter and didn’t follow the checklist – we had a specific provision for these types of letters, called division orders. He carelessly stuck it in a drawer because he wasn’t sure what it was, or perhaps didn’t read it with enough attention to detail.

But by sticking it in the drawer, he had missed a critical deadline. The operator paid monthly, and we had missed the first month’s royalty payment that we were entitled to. This careless error cost us $50,000 – roughly our assistant’s salary for the entire year.

It turns out every letter in the drawer was one that our hapless employee didn’t know what to do with – so he created a habit of sticking them in the drawer to “ask us about later.” The checklist was clear – he was supposed to bring these types of letters to us, but we hadn’t specified a timeline. Perhaps he thought he was saving us time by not bothering us, but whatever the reason – he had taken a step in the checklist and created his own, thus normalizing a procedure that was not part of the original.

In this case, it cost him his job.

But let’s look at an example outside of business. Perhaps the most useful example of this concept is in our relationships.

When we first meet our partners, we whisper sweet nothings and treat each other with puppy-love kindness.

But over the years as the pheromones wear off, work, kids and the stresses of life can eat away at the sweetness of the honeymoon period.

No one probably remembers the first time they were short with their partner.

We don’t remember the first time that we rolled our eyes when they didn’t pick up their dirty laundry. We don’t notice the first time that we snapped at them when they asked us something when we were busy.

However, that first time that we do those things, we have deviated from the standard of how we would like to treat our partners (and certainly how we would like to be treated ourselves.)

But unless we are very conscious of our actions, we probably shrug it off. We chalk it up to life, to stress, to being busy.

Every time we speak to our partners in an unkind way in the future, we normalize a new standard for communication between us.

Have you ever witnessed a couple at the table next to you at dinner, trading jabs and sarcastic darts with lowered eyes as they eat?

Ever wondered how they got that way?

It most likely wasn’t in a single day. It didn’t start with one fight or one incident.

They most likely started from puppy love and sweet nothings, and then, over time, one insult by one insult, they now speak to each other in a way we wouldn’t speak to our worst enemy.

This too is the normalization of deviance.

So how can we identify where we have normalized behaviors outside of our standards?

My favorite way to do this is with the following journaling exercise:

  1. Identify 3 key areas of life where I would like to uphold standards. Example: my relationship with my partner, parenting, and my money habits
  2. What are the standards I would like to uphold in each of these three areas?
  3. How am I showing up in these three areas currently?
  4. What are some actions I can take to arrest the behavior in the moment?

The critical part of improvement is recognizing our behavior in the moment. Setting these intentions and creating exercises to help us identify when we are on autopilot and normalizing deviance is the key to changing our behavior.

Take some time this week to reflect on these areas and observe the results.

I guarantee if you incorporate this exercise into your routine, the results will take care of themselves.

To becoming the best version of ourselves,


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