When Doing Wrong Feels So Right: Normalization of Deviance

J Patient Saf. 2018 Mar;14(1):1-2. doi: 10.1097/PTS.0000000000000157.


Normalization of deviance is a term first coined by sociologist Diane Vaughan when reviewing the Challenger disaster. Vaughan noted that the root cause of the Challenger disaster was related to the repeated choice of NASA officials to fly the space shuttle despite a dangerous design flaw with the O-rings. Vaughan describes this phenomenon as occurring when people within an organization become so insensitive to deviant practice that it no longer feels wrong. Insensitivity occurs insidiously and sometimes over years because disaster does not happen until other critical factors line up. In clinical practice, failing to do time outs before procedures, shutting off alarms, and breaches of infection control are deviances from evidence-based practice. As in other industries, health care workers do not make these choices intending to set into motion a cascade toward disaster and harm. Deviation occurs because of barriers to using the correct process or drivers such as time, cost, and peer pressure. As in other industries, operators will often adamantly defend their actions as necessary and justified. Although many other high-risk industries have embraced the normalization of deviance concept, it is relatively new to health care. It is urgent that we explore the impact of this concept on patient harm. We can borrow this concept from other industries and also the steps these other high-risk organizations have found to prevent it.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Medical Errors* / ethics
  • Medical Errors* / prevention & control
  • Medical Errors* / psychology
  • Morals*
  • Organizational Culture
  • Patient Safety*
  • Social Norms*