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How Risky Behavior Spreads

How Risky Behavior Spreads

by Starling Insights

Starling Insights Editorial Board

May 02, 2023


In a Harvard Business Review article, Jennifer Logg and Catherine Tinsley, both from Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, discuss how risky behavior spreads through an organization. Their research has identified two key channels by which risk-taking behavior takes hold: social cues and trial-and-error.

Decades of research has made clear the role of peer norms in influencing conduct. People observe others' behavior to determine what is likely to be rewarded and punished — either formally or socially — in their environment. "As any manager knows, employees respond less to what they are told is appropriate behavior and more to what they see others doing in the workplace," Logg and Tinsley wrote.

However, when no social cues are available, people resort to trial and error — taking moderate amounts of risk and assessing the results. If the risky behavior goes without consequences, they will likely develop a sense of safety and become less careful. "In effect, 'cutting corners' — even if it's accidental to begin with — will lead to more corners cut going forward," they said.

Most dangerous is when these effects combine, and excessively risky behavior spreads through social norms. This occurs through what Sociologist Diane Vaughan termed the "Normalization of Deviance."

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