The article was last updated by Samantha Choi on January 30, 2024.

Deviance in psychology is a complex and multifaceted concept that encompasses a wide range of behaviors and characteristics. In this article, we will delve into the different types of deviance, including normative, reactive, positive, and negative deviance, as well as the various factors that contribute to deviant behavior.

We will also examine real-life examples of deviant behavior, such as criminal behavior, substance abuse, and personality disorders. We will explore the methods and techniques used to study deviance in psychology, including case studies, experiments, surveys, and observational studies. Join us as we explore the fascinating and intricate world of deviance in psychology.

What Is Deviance in Psychology?

Deviance in psychology refers to behavior that significantly violates social norms and is often not considered socially acceptable. It encompasses a range of actions, from addiction to criminal behavior, and can be explained through various psychological and sociological theories.

Psychological research suggests that deviant behavior may stem from a combination of genetic predispositions, environmental influences, and individual psychological factors.

For instance, certain personality traits, such as impulsivity or sensation-seeking, may contribute to an individual’s likelihood to engage in deviant behavior, including addictive tendencies.

Societal influences, such as peer pressure and cultural attitudes towards substance use, play a significant role in shaping deviant behavior.

The social learning theory posits that individuals may learn and model deviant behaviors from their interactions with others and exposure to deviant norms. To gain a better understanding of deviance in psychology, you can visit Understanding Deviance in Psychology: Definition and Examples.

Types of Deviance

Deviance in psychology can be classified into various types, including normative, reactive, positive, and negative deviance, each presenting distinct behavioral characteristics and societal implications.

Normative Deviance

Normative deviance involves behavior that deviates from established societal norms and expectations, challenging the conventional standards of conformity and acceptable conduct.

This form of deviance can take many forms, from minor violations of etiquette to more serious transgressions, and it can occur in various social contexts, including at the workplace, within communities, or even on a broader societal scale.

Normative deviance can encompass acts such as breaking traffic rules, disobeying cultural traditions, or engaging in behaviors that are considered taboo by a majority of the population.

These deviations from expected norms can have a significant impact on the fabric of society, as they force individuals and communities to reassess their attitudes toward adherence and adherence to shared rules and values. In some cases, normative deviance can lead to the establishment of new societal norms, while in others, it may spark conflicts and tensions between those who deviate and those who uphold traditional standards.

Reactive Deviance

Reactive deviance refers to behaviors that arise in response to societal influences or external stimuli, often as a reaction to specific circumstances or environmental factors.

This form of deviance is intricately linked to the concept of social control, as individuals may engage in reactive deviant behaviors as a response to perceived oppression or injustice.

Labeling theory suggests that when individuals are stigmatized or labeled as deviant by society, they may internalize this identity and act in accordance with societal expectations.

For instance, a person who is constantly labeled as ‘troublemaker’ or ‘delinquent’ may eventually conform to these expectations and exhibit deviant behaviors.

Positive Deviance

Positive deviance encompasses behaviors that deviate from the norm in beneficial ways, leading to positive societal impacts and innovative solutions to existing challenges.

These uncommon but effective behaviors are often found in communities or groups facing a specific issue, where certain individuals or groups deviate from the expected behavior and achieve better results, without access to additional resources or knowledge.

One notable example of positive deviance is the work of Jerry and Monique Sternin, who applied this concept in a malnutrition project in Vietnam. By identifying families whose children were well-nourished despite facing similar challenges, they were able to reverse the issue and found that these families were employing different feeding practices compared to the local norms.

Negative Deviance

Negative deviance encompasses behaviors that deviate from societal norms in detrimental ways, leading to harmful consequences for individuals and the broader society.

Examples of negative deviant behaviors include criminal actions, substance abuse, and destructive patterns of behavior. These actions not only affect the individuals engaging in them but also have far-reaching ramifications on the community and society at large.

From a psychological perspective, negative deviance can be attributed to various factors such as environmental influences, genetic predispositions, and social learning. It can lead to stigmatization, isolation, and the breakdown of social cohesion, ultimately undermining the well-being and harmony of the entire society.

Factors Contributing to Deviance

Deviance in psychology is influenced by a myriad of factors, including biological, social, and psychological elements that play crucial roles in determining and understanding deviant behavior.

Biological factors such as genetics, brain injury, or hormonal imbalances can contribute to deviant behavior. For instance, the case study of the MAOA gene deficiency, often referred to as the ‘warrior gene,’ has been linked to aggressive and violent behavior.

Social influences, including family dynamics, peer pressure, and societal norms, also significantly impact deviance. The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Zimbardo demonstrated how situational factors can lead to deviant behavior, with participants taking on abusive roles when placed in authoritative positions.

Psychological influences, such as personality disorders and cognitive processes, can contribute to deviance. The case of Richard Kuklinski, known as the ‘Iceman,’ exemplifies how a disturbed mental state can lead to serial killing due to deep-seated psychological issues.

Biological Factors

Biological factors, such as genetic influences and neurobiological mechanisms, contribute to the development of deviant behavior, including addictive tendencies and predispositions to certain psychological disorders.

For instance, studies have shown that specific genetic variations may increase the likelihood of substance abuse and addiction in individuals.

The interplay between genetics and neurobiology can shape an individual’s susceptibility to deviant behavior. Research in neurobiology has indicated that certain brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex and limbic system, play a crucial role in impulse control and emotional regulation, impacting the manifestation of deviant behavior.

Psychological theories, like the diathesis-stress model, highlight the interaction between genetic vulnerabilities and environmental stressors in the development of deviant behaviors.

Social Factors

Social factors, such as societal influences and peer pressure, significantly contribute to the manifestation of deviant behavior, shaping individuals’ attitudes and actions within their social environments.

The impact of societal influences can be observed in adolescent delinquency. Peer pressure and norms within certain social circles can lead to risky behaviors or criminal activities.

For example, a study conducted by Smith et al. (2017) found that teenagers who associated with delinquent peer groups were more likely to engage in deviant behaviors. This reflects the influence of their social environment on their conduct.

Psychological Factors

Psychological factors, including cognitive development theories and psychological explanations, play a significant role in understanding and addressing deviant behavior, such as conduct disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These psychological factors provide important insights into the root causes and manifestations of deviance.

Cognitive development theories such as Piaget’s stages of cognitive development demonstrate how disturbances in cognitive processes can contribute to deviant behavior, particularly in adolescence.

Moreover, psychological explanations like the social learning theory highlight the impact of environment and reinforcement in shaping deviant conduct.

By looking into the case studies of individuals exhibiting deviant behavior and applying these psychological theories, clinicians and researchers can gain a comprehensive understanding of the complex interplay between cognitive processes, environmental influences, and deviant behavior.

Examples of Deviant Behavior

Deviant behavior manifests in various forms, including criminal behavior, substance abuse, sexual deviance, and personality disorders, each presenting distinct challenges and implications for individuals and society.

Criminal behavior can encompass a wide range of actions, from petty theft to violent crimes. A case study conducted by [Research Organization] highlighted the impact of criminal behavior on the community. Interviews revealed the fear and disruption caused by repeated burglaries.

Similarly, substance abuse, such as drug addiction, not only affects the individual’s health but also strains social and economic resources. Understanding the multifaceted nature of deviant behavior is crucial in implementing effective prevention and intervention strategies.

Criminal Behavior

Criminal behavior represents a significant form of deviance, encompassing actions that violate legal norms and have profound societal impacts, often leading to legal consequences and social ramifications.

This behavior ranges from petty crimes like theft and vandalism to more severe offenses such as violent crimes and white-collar crimes.

The implication of criminal deviant behavior extends beyond the individual, influencing community safety, economic stability, and legal processes.

An important case study demonstrating these implications is the notorious Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Bernard Madoff, which caused financial devastation for numerous investors and raised concerns about regulatory oversight.

Real-life examples, like this, underscore the destructive effects of criminal behavior on both the victims and the public’s sense of security.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse represents a prevalent form of deviant behavior, characterized by addictive tendencies and psychological underpinnings that contribute to the misuse of substances and detrimental effects on individuals and communities.

Substance abuse is a complex issue that involves both physiological and psychological factors. The addictive nature of substances can alter brain chemistry, creating a cycle of dependency and intense cravings. On a psychological level, theories like the self-medication hypothesis and social learning theory help explain how emotional distress, trauma, and social environment can contribute to substance abuse behavior.

Sexual Deviance

Sexual deviance encompasses behaviors that deviate from societal norms and expectations regarding sexual conduct, often influenced by psychological explanations and diverse societal factors.

At its core, sexual deviance challenges the traditional perceptions of sexual behavior, encompassing a wide array of activities that may be considered unacceptable or abnormal in a given society.

The influence of psychological explanations such as trauma, conditioning, or personality disorders becomes evident in cases where individuals engage in aberrant sexual behaviors. Societal factors such as cultural norms, media representation, and peer influence contribute to the understanding of sexual deviance in varying contexts and environments.

Personality Disorders

Personality disorders represent a form of deviant behavior characterized by enduring patterns of behavior and cognition that deviate from societal norms, often influenced by psychological explanations and mental health factors.

These disorders often manifest as inflexible and maladaptive responses to stress or interpersonal situations, leading to significant impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning.

For instance, a case study of borderline personality disorder illustrates the complexities of this condition, with fluctuating moods, unstable relationships, and impulsive behaviors. Psychodynamic theories suggest that early childhood experiences and unresolved conflicts play a pivotal role in the development of personality disorders, shedding light on the influence of psychological factors.

Antisocial Behavior

Antisocial behavior encompasses actions that deviate from societal norms and interpersonal expectations, often influenced by psychological theories and individual dispositions.

This pattern of behavior is commonly associated with various forms of deviance, including criminal activity, aggression, and disregard for the well-being of others.

Psychological theories, such as the social learning theory and the psychodynamic theory, provide valuable insights into the underlying motives and causes of antisocial behavior.

For instance, the case study of a serial criminal who exhibited consistent disregard for social norms and a lack of remorse can shed light on the complex manifestations of antisocial behavior in different individuals.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders represent a form of deviant behavior characterized by disturbances in eating habits and body image, often influenced by psychological explanations and societal pressures.

Individuals affected by eating disorders may experience severe psychological distress, leading to detrimental effects on their physical health. For instance, anorexia nervosa, a commonly recognized eating disorder, can lead to extreme weight loss, malnutrition, and other serious medical complications.

This condition often stems from a distorted body image and a fear of gaining weight, perpetuated by internal psychological struggles and external societal standards of beauty. The societal emphasis on achieving a specific body ideal, often portrayed in media and popular culture, contributes to the exacerbation of these disorders. The relentless pursuit of a thin physique, unrealistic beauty standards, and the glorification of extreme dieting can significantly impact individuals’ self-esteem and body image, triggering the onset of disordered eating behaviors.


Self-harm encompasses deviant behaviors related to intentional self-injury, often associated with mental health challenges and maladaptive coping mechanisms in response to emotional distress.

Individuals who engage in self-harm often experience intense emotional turmoil, and they may turn to self-injury as a way to cope with overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression, or trauma.

The complexities of self-harm as a manifestation of emotional distress underscore the need for comprehensive mental health support and intervention strategies. Mental health professionals often observe that self-harming behaviors can be a response to deep-seated psychological issues, such as unresolved trauma or unhealthy thought patterns. A deeper understanding of these underlying factors is essential to develop effective treatment plans and support individuals in breaking the cycle of self-harm.

How Is Deviance Studied in Psychology?

The study of deviance in psychology relies on diverse research methods, including case studies, experiments, surveys, and observational studies, to understand the complexities of deviant behavior and its implications for individuals and society.

Case studies involve in-depth examinations of individual or small groups to gain insight into specific instances of deviance. For example, the famous case study of Phineas Gage, whose brain injury drastically changed his behavior, provided valuable insights into the relationship between brain function and behavior.

Experiments allow researchers to manipulate variables and observe the effects on deviant behavior. By controlling conditions, researchers can establish cause-and-effect relationships. For instance, the Stanford Prison Experiment illustrated how situational factors can lead to deviant behavior in a controlled setting.

Surveys, on the other hand, capture a broader perspective by gathering data from a large sample of individuals. These can reveal prevalence rates and common correlates of deviant behaviors. For example, surveys on substance abuse have helped identify risk factors and patterns of addiction.

Observational studies involve observing subjects in their natural environment to understand their behavior. One of the classic observations is the Hawthorne effect, in which workers’ productivity changed due to the awareness of being observed, shedding light on how individuals may modify their behavior when being studied.

Case Studies

Case studies play a pivotal role in the study of deviance in psychology, offering in-depth analyses of individual behaviors, circumstances, and the broader impact of deviant actions on the individual and society.

By looking into specific instances of deviant behavior, such as the famous case of Phineas Gage, psychologists can gain valuable insights into the underlying psychological mechanisms and societal implications of deviance.

For instance, Gage’s case provided a unique opportunity to understand the relationship between brain trauma and subsequent behavioral changes, shedding light on the intricate interplay between neurological factors and deviant actions.


Experiments serve as valuable tools in studying deviant behavior in psychology, allowing researchers to explore the underlying causes and effects of deviance under controlled conditions and experimental settings.

By design, experiments enable psychologists to manipulate independent variables and observe the resulting impact on deviant behavior. This enhances their understanding of the complex interplay between various factors.

For instance, a classic study by Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford Prison Experiment, shed light on how situational factors can lead ordinary individuals to exhibit deviant behaviors in a simulated prison environment.

Through experimental research, psychologists have uncovered valuable insights into the psychological mechanisms that contribute to deviant behavior. These include cognitive biases, social pressures, and personality traits.

These findings have facilitated the development of more effective interventions and treatments for individuals engaging in deviant behaviors.


Surveys are instrumental in studying deviant behavior in psychology, enabling researchers to collect extensive data on attitudes, perceptions, and prevalence of deviant actions within specific populations and social contexts.

This method of data collection not only allows for the identification of the types and frequency of deviant behaviors but also provides valuable insights into how such behaviors are perceived by different segments of society.

For example, a survey conducted by University X revealed that while certain behaviors were widely considered deviant in a large urban community, the same actions were viewed as more acceptable in a rural setting.

Observational Studies

Observational studies provide valuable insights into deviant behavior in psychology, allowing researchers to analyze behavioral patterns, interactions, and environmental influences that contribute to deviant actions.

Through observational studies, psychologists can gain a comprehensive understanding of the complexities of deviant behavior.

By closely observing individuals in their natural contexts, researchers can uncover the underlying factors that drive deviant actions, whether it’s criminal behavior, addiction, or social nonconformity.

For example, a well-known observational study conducted by Bandura et al. showcased how children’s aggressive behavior was influenced by observing adult models.

Such cases offer real-world insights into the intricate dynamics of deviance, shedding light on the mechanisms that shape and perpetuate deviant behaviors.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is deviance in psychology?

Deviance in psychology refers to behavior that goes against social norms, values, and expectations. It is often viewed as abnormal or unacceptable and can range from minor rule-breaking to criminal actions.

How is deviance defined in psychology?

The definition of deviance in psychology can vary depending on the specific perspective or theory being applied. However, it generally involves behaviors that are considered atypical or out of the ordinary within a particular social or cultural context.

What are some examples of deviant behaviors?

Examples of deviant behaviors can include criminal activities, substance abuse, sexual disorders, eating disorders, and mental illnesses. It can also include actions that are considered socially unacceptable, such as lying, cheating, or bullying.

What are the different theories of deviance in psychology?

There are multiple theories that attempt to explain deviance in psychology, including the biological, sociological, psychological, and cultural perspectives. These theories often have different explanations for why individuals engage in deviant behaviors.

How do psychologists study deviance?

Psychologists use various research methods, including surveys, experiments, and case studies, to study deviance. These methods help them understand the causes, effects, and potential treatments for deviant behaviors.

Can deviance ever be considered normal?

Yes, deviance can sometimes be considered normal, depending on the context and cultural norms. What is considered deviant in one society may be acceptable in another. Additionally, certain behaviors that were once considered deviant may become more accepted over time.

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