Deviance psychology definition

Deviance - IResearchNet

Deviance Definition

Deviance is a broad term meant to signify behavior that violates social norms. The origins and functions of deviant behavior have long been of interest in the social sciences, with early sociological theories influencing the psychology theories that followed.

Sociological Theories of Deviance

Structural Functionalism

One broad sociological approach to the study of deviance was structural functionalism. This viewpoint focused attention on social institutions in societies. Social institutions are organizations that fulfill vital roles in society and that promote the continued existence of society (e.g., the criminal justice system, the courts, the family). Institutions bind individuals together by promoting social norms that define right and wrong.

Emile Durkheim, an early structural functionalist, introduced the notion of anomie, a precursor to modern conceptions of deviance. Anomie was conceived of as a psychological state created when social norms fail to affect how an individual acts. Robert Merton expanded on the concept of anomie by showing two dimensions upon which individuals might deviate from social norms. First, they can reject the normative goals of society (e.g., wanting to support a drug habit rather than a family). Second, they can reject the normative means of achieving goals (e.g., stealing money rather than earning it from an employer). Alternatively, an individual can seek radical changes to society, changes that alter its normative goals and means. As an example, an American citizen might reject his or her society’s embrace of capitalism in favor of community and might advocate for socialist policies as a way of promoting this new social agenda.

The strength of structural functionalism was that it drew attention to the role that society plays in defining right and wrong. Deviation from social norms was not viewed as a property inherent to certain actors. It instead was viewed as something social institutions create to preserve the society. The major weakness of this approach was that it did not elaborate on the individual-level mechanisms that cause people to deviate. In fact, structural functionalists tended to question whether one could understand the whole (society) by examining the parts (the individual).

Symbolic Interactionism

Some scholars were interested in the component parts, and this contributed to the rise of symbolic interactionism within sociology. Symbolic interactionists examine how individuals construct social meaning through their interactions with other people. A key concept is the looking-glass self, coined by Charles Horton Cooley. Accordingly, individuals cannot find a personal identity by looking inward but must instead adopt the viewpoints of other people. The tendency to incorporate the opinions of others into the self can lead to a self-fulfilling prophesy, such that individuals become the very people they are thought to be by others.

Because symbolic interactionists focus on the opinions of other people, many of these scholars have focused attention on the majority opinions found in societies. Howard S. Becker followed such an approach. He argued that social institutions create accepted labels that give meanings to actions. Over time, he argued, people come to accept the labels society gives them. For instance, a society might create the negative term thief as a way of deterring crime, but people who are labeled in this way (e.g., by the criminal justice system) might come to identify with their label and then commit more crimes.

Group Dynamics

Although symbolic interactionism succeeded in bringing the individual into the discussion on deviance, it largely ignored the harder question that was of interest to structural functionalists: Why do social groups categorize certain people as deviant? It was this question that early psychological theories sought to address. The most influential of these traditions was the group dynamics approach, which was started in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin and his students and colleagues at the Research Center for Group Dynamics. This perspective emphasized two broad psychological tendencies that were thought to generate pressures to conform.

The first tendency was the need for social reality. It was thought that individuals possess an epistemic need to possess both certain and veridical knowledge. Individuals can satisfy this need by joining groups with like-minded individuals. For this reason, groups tend to punish and reject opinion deviants, because these individuals threaten a shared social reality. The second tendency that generated conformity pressure was the desire to succeed. Social groups often form as a way of helping individuals accomplish their goals. Group locomotion toward a shared goal thus creates uniformity pressures within the group, and so groups that are driven to succeed should identify and then punish deviants who stand in the way.

Deviance Implications

These three broad approaches to deviance differ considerably in their assumptions, but each offers a valuable and complementary view. A structural functionalist approach emphasizes external forces that define deviance (e.g., social institutions). This draws attention to complex social systems and larger societal needs, that is, needs that occur outside the individual. A group dynamics perspective focuses attention on internal psychological forces and the individual’s need to maintain a coherent social reality and to succeed. Symbolic interactionism splits the difference between these two extremes. It shares the structural functionalist emphasis on external causes (others’ opinions), but it focuses attention on individual-level mechanisms (the looking-glass self). In a way, structural functionalism and group dynamics are the most alike in that they want to reveal the ultimate cause of deviance. Structural functionalism locates this cause in the needs of societies to endure, whereas group dynamics locates this cause in the needs of the individuals to know and to grow. If symbolic interaction-ism is less ambitious for not seeking the true cause of deviance, it is also more generous in that it can accommodate causes that arise from society and the individual.


  1. Abrams, D., Marques, J. M., & Hogg, M. A. (2004). The social psychology of inclusion and exclusion. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
  2. Durkheim, E. (1999). The normal and the pathological. In S. H. Traub & C. B. Little (Eds.), Theories of deviance (pp. 4-9). Itasca, IL: Peacock. (Original work published 1938)
  3. Haslam, S. A., & Turner, J. C. (1998). Extremism and deviance: Beyond taxonomy and bias. Social Research, 65, 111-222.
  4. Levine, J. M. (1989). Reactions to opinion deviance in small groups. In P. B. Paulus (Ed.), Psychology of group influence (pp. 187-231). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  5. Schachter, S. (1951). Deviation, rejection and communication. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46, 190-207.

Definition of Psychological theory of deviance in Sociology.


In many ways, psychological theories of deviance mirror biological explanations (see section: Biological Theories of Deviance), only with an emphasis on the brain.

  • Psychological Theories of Deviance

    • Psychological theories of deviance use a deviant's psychology to explain his motivation or compulsion to violate social norms.
    • Psychological theories of deviance use a deviant's psychology to explain his motivation and compulsion to violate social norms.
    • One case study of a psychological theory of deviance is the case of conduct disorder.
    • Psychological theories of deviance do not necessarily have a biological element.
    • This goes to demonstrate the fluctuating nature of psychological theories of deviance.
  • Theories of Deviance

    • Merton, in his discussion of deviance, proposed a typology of deviant behavior.
    • According to Merton, there are five types of deviance based upon these criteria:
    • A clear example of how deviance reflects power imbalances is in the reporting and tracking of crimes.
    • Deviant labels refer to identities that are known for falling outside of cultural norms, like loner or punk.There are two additional ideas related to the labeling theory approach to understanding deviance.
    • Another important element of labeling theory involves the idea of stigma.
  • Evaluating the Humanistic Perspective on Personality

    • The humanistic perspective of personality theory is a holistic psychological perspective that attributes human characteristics and actions to free will and an innate drive for self-actualization .
    • Humanistic psychology stresses the importance of free will and thus, personal responsibility for decision-making.
    • It explains human potential in a way that other theories cannot.
    • Although humanistic personality psychology explains a lot of human behavior, critics have taken issue with many of the early tenets of the study.
    • The major theory of humanistic personality psychology, namely that people are innately good and intuitively seek positive goals, does not explain the presence of deviance or evil in the world within normal, functioning personalities.
  • Deviance

    • Karen Halnon of Pennsylvania State University studies informal deviance and focuses on what she calls "deviance vacations," whereby people of a certain socioeconomic status voluntarily enter another, usually lower, social strata.
    • Deviance is often divided into two types of activities.
    • The first, crime, is the violation of formally enacted laws and is referred to as formal deviance.
    • Examples of formal deviance include robbery, theft, rape, murder, and assault.
    • Karen Halnon of Pennsylvania State University studies informal deviance and focuses on what she calls "deviance vacations," whereby people of a given socioeconomic status voluntarily enter a different, often lower, social strata.
  • Introduction to deviance

    • Deviance is often divided into two types of deviant activities.
    • The first, crime is the violation of formally enacted laws and is referred to as formal deviance.
    • Karen Halnon of Pennsylvania State University studies how some people exercise informal deviance.
    • Sociological interest in deviance includes both interests in measuring formal deviance (statistics of criminal behavior; see below), examining how people (individually and collectively) define some things deviant and others normative, and a number of theories that try to explain both the role of deviance in society and its origins.
    • This chapter will cover the theories of deviance used by sociologists and will also cover current crime statistics.
  • Sociological Theories of Deviance

    • Sociological theories of deviance are those that use social context and social pressures to explain deviance.
    • Sociological theories of deviance are those that use social context and social pressures to explain deviance .
    • Four main sociological theories of deviance exist.
    • The third main sociological theory of deviance is conflict theory.
    • The fourth main sociological theory of deviance is labeling theory.
  • Strain Theory: How Social Values Produce Deviance

    • Thus, deviance can be the result of accepting one norm, but breaking another in order to pursue the first.
    • According to Merton, there are five types of deviance based upon these criteria:
    • Thus, deviance can be the result of accepting one norm, but breaking another in order to pursue the first.
    • In this sense, according social strain theory, social values actually produce deviance in two ways.
    • Apply Merton's typology of deviance to the real world and give examples for each type
  • Biological Theories of Deviance

    • A biological theory of deviance proposes that an individual deviates from social norms largely because of their biological makeup.
    • Historically, biological theories of crime assumed criminal tendencies could be discovered by looking at physical traits that relate to stereotypical suspects, like having a lot of tattoos or having a muscular physique.
    • A biological theory of deviance proposes that an individual deviates from social norms largely because of their biological makeup.
    • The theory primarily pertains to formal deviance, using biological reasons to explain criminality, though it can certainly extend to informal deviance.
    • A biological interpretation of formal deviance was first advanced by the Italian School of Criminology, a school of thought originating from Italy during the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Freud's Psychosexual Theory of Development

    • Humanistic Psychology

      • Humanistic psychology adopts a holistic view of human existence through explorations of meaning, human potential, and self-actualization.
      • Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) is considered the founder of humanistic psychology, and is noted for his conceptualization of a hierarchy of human needs.
      • Unlike many of his predecessors, Maslow studied mentally healthy individuals instead of people with serious psychological issues.
      • To explain his theories, Maslow created a visual, which he termed the "hierarchy of needs."
      • In addition, The major tenet of humanistic personality psychology—namely, that people are innately good and intuitively seek positive goals—does not account for the presence of deviance in the world within normal, functioning personalities.

    Deviance, deviant behavior - Psychologos

    Film "Liquidation"

    Deviant, deviant - this is an unusual, but at the same time a stable deviation from statistical norms. In other words, deviant is considered a stable way of acting, behaving or thinking that is not typical for the general population.

    Deviant behavior (from English deviation - deviation) - actions that do not correspond to officially established or actually established in a given society (social group) moral and legal norms and lead the offender (deviant) to isolation, treatment, correction or punishment.

    Types of deviant behavior

    Main types of deviant behavior: crime, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, prostitution, sexual deviations.

    Currently, there is no single approach to the study and explanation of deviant behavior. A number of researchers, following E. Durkheim, believe that under normal conditions for the functioning of a social organization, deviant behavior does not occur so often, but in conditions of social disorganization, when normative control weakens, the likelihood of manifestations of deviation increases. Such situations include stress, intragroup and intergroup conflicts, abrupt changes in society.

    From the point of view of the theory of anomie (R. Merton), deviant behavior grows if, in the presence of common goals, socially approved means of achieving these goals are not available to everyone, and for some people or social groups they are not available at all. From the standpoint of the concept of socialization, persons with deviant behavior become people whose socialization takes place in an environment where the factors predisposing to such behavior (violence, immorality, etc. ) are considered normal, or society treats them quite tolerantly.

    Of interest and popular in the 1960s. the concept of stigmatization, drawing attention to the social reaction to deviant behavior. According to this concept, deviation is the result of a negative social assessment, “sticking” a label of some kind of deviation on an individual (for example, “liar”, “alcoholic”, “drug addict”, “sexual maniac”) and the subsequent desire to isolate him, correct, cure etc.

    Numerous domestic and foreign studies of the psychology of deviant behavior are focused on the study of personal characteristics of deviants, their mental health, the problem of self-identification, the internalization of norms and values, the role of external and internal control, the development of methods of psychotherapy and mental correction of persons with various forms of deviation.

    The study of deviance

    The study of deviance is based on two different points of view:

    1. Deviance is determined through single critical events. Cases of unusual and highly active behavior characterized by madness and violence.
    2. Deviance was the main content of many important aspects of personality theory, clinical and social psychology.

    Deviance research can be classified according to four main positions:

    1. The first involves looking at deviance as a function of internal factors. Deviance is considered in the aspect of differences between individuals. In terms of individual differences, it is assumed that individuals or groups of people who have a certain level of specificity are more likely to become deviants. It is also assumed that individual differences and deviance are connected by causal relationships.
    2. The second important explanation of deviance postulates differences in social structure as its main premises. Officially classified forms of deviance are characterized by a disproportionately high representation among the population that occupies a lower socio-economic position in our society. In terms of differences in social structure, in access to legitimate opportunities, in access to illegal opportunities, alienation or hostility are the critical ingredients that often cause deviance. According to this position, deviance has individual components, resulting from the impact of various social structures, and environmental aspects.
    3. The third important explanation of deviance is based on the interactionist point of view. According to the formally called "labeling theory", deviance is generated by the reaction of critical individuals to a certain act. Psychological disorders, crime and lack of achievement are officially and informally labeled as deviant. From the point of view of the labeling theory, deviance is an interaction between the actions of an individual and the reactions of society to them.
    4. The fourth important point of view is expressed by the theory of learning. According to it, all actions, deviant or normal, are acquired in accordance with the laws of modeling, reinforcement and punishment. Those people who exhibit deviant patterns of behavior previously received appropriate rewards for such actions. From a learning theory point of view, there are no inherent differences between deviant and normal behavior. Criminal behavior, deviant behavior, and learning disabilities are acquired through learning.

    What is deviant behavior in simple terms and how to deal with it

    Deviant behavior is actions and deeds that are considered unacceptable in society. It can be manifested by aggression, up to sadism, theft, deceit, vagrancy and other behavioral abnormalities.

    What is deviant behavior in simple terms

    Most often, this term characterizes the behavior of adolescents, referring to their youthful maximalism and a tendency to violate generally accepted rules. In other words, deviant behavior is more common among teenagers.

    The concept of deviant behavior is usually given a negative meaning, which emphasizes its asociality and dangerous deviation from the norm. However, from the point of view of psychology, deviant forms of behavior are not only destructive. Especially considering that the demands of society are often illogical and meaningless.

    Deviations are actions that are contrary to social norms and rules adopted in certain groups - school, university, kindergarten, etc. Deviants are called strange at best and are disapproved of.

    However, psychologists assure that the concept of "norm" does not exist in principle, and every person is characterized by deviance to one degree or another. There are no exceptions here. There is even a special science - deviantology (from the Latin "deviato" - "deviation"), it studies social deviations and society's reaction to them.

    Attention! Deviant behavior in sociology is not characterized by the quality of a person's act. Rather, it is a consequence of the application by others of the rules and sanctions to the "violator", "labeling".

    Causes of deviant behavior

    The American sociologist Robert Merton studied various manifestations of deviance and considered them in the context of the natural conditions of social life. He considered deviant behavior to be a normal reaction of a normal person to abnormal conditions.

    Factors of deviant behavior are divided into 3 main groups:

    • biological;
    • educational;
    • social.

    One of the varieties of incorrect behavior is psychological deviations, the occurrence of which is due to several factors at once. Such forms are difficult to correct.

    What does deviant behavior mean, the criteria for its assessment, schoolchildren study in social science lessons in high school.


    The biological factors of deviant behavior are, first of all, hereditary personality traits: a tendency to alcoholism, drug addiction, mental disability. This category also includes pathologies of the central nervous system, provoked by serious illnesses in the first years of a child's life, craniocerebral injuries, which led to a change in the structures of the brain.

    Other reasons:

    • depression;
    • psychoses of different origin;
    • schizotypal disorder;
    • infantilism;
    • attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity;
    • schizophrenia.

    Diviant behavior against the background of biological disorders is expressed by emotional instability and low ability to adapt.

    Attention! Antisocial actions and sharpening of typical character traits are possible against the background of hormonal changes in the puberty period, when the brain is actively developing and higher mental functions are being formed.


    The prerequisites for the development of this form of deviation are the incorrect upbringing of the child (teenager) - mistakes in pedagogy. It can be:

    • deviant, delinquent behavior within the family, when one of its members sets an example for the younger generation;
    • lack of mutual understanding, respect in the family;
    • authoritarian upbringing, unfair punishments;
    • indulgence to all whims, fulfillment of any desires of the child;
    • excessive guardianship or lack thereof;
    • depriving the child of personal space;
    • ignoring the needs of the child - both moral and physical.

    Case study:

    Vanya was a quiet, well-mannered teenager and studied well. But everything changed after the divorce of the parents, which took place in an atmosphere of extreme hostility. Ivan began to often skip classes, be rude to teachers, and once even got into a fight. The mother managed to persuade her son to talk with a psychologist, after several sessions the child calmed down and returned to studies.

    It is very important for a child, and especially a teenager, to be understood at home. Constant conflicts, harsh, repressive methods of education, the systematic violation of personal boundaries often causes asocial acts and actions in response. If you are faced with something similar, analyze, first of all, your behavior. Or contact our psychologists for personalized advice. We work around the clock, remotely.


    Social factors are called factors that involve interaction with other people. These include:

    • communication difficulties - it is difficult for a child to communicate with peers;
    • marginal environment - alcoholics, drug addicts;
    • forced communication with representatives of religious sects;
    • bullying - harassment, ridicule, harassment, up to causing bodily harm;
    • violent actions: coercion to have sex, beating;
    • excessive alcohol consumption, drug use;
    • excessive commitment to youth subcultures.

    Pay attention! Examples of deviant behavior can be found everywhere. Negative deviations are inherent in homeless people, street bandits. Positive deviance was demonstrated by Einstein, Perelman, Steve Jobs and many other famous personalities whom we call geniuses.

    Classification: types of deviant behavior

    In sociology, deviant behavior is divided into positive and negative. Positive forms of deviations include:

    • workaholism;
    • increased interest in art, creativity, sciences;
    • self-sacrifice;
    • charity, volunteering;
    • passion for diets and healthy lifestyles.

    The listed forms of deviant behavior are considered positive, although they are, in fact, a deviation from generally accepted norms.

    Negative deviant behavior consists in committing actions and deeds that are not accepted in society. Negative deviation is divided into several types:

    • addictive;
    • immoral;
    • delinquent.

    Negative deviation, in turn, is divided into several types with the following characteristics:

    • unconscious. A person does not understand that his actions are forbidden, and performs them unconsciously;
    • nonconformist. The deviant is aware of his actions and commits them intentionally;
    • aberrant. Unacceptable acts are done secretly out of fear of judgment and punishment.

    There is also a syndrome whose name sounds like "predeviant". It includes a number of features, including:

    • regularly arising problems, conflict situations in communication with others;
    • increased aggressiveness;
    • negative attitude towards education and work.

    Attention! Predeviant syndrome leads to persistent negative deviation.

    Primary and secondary deviations

    Primary deviant behavior generally corresponds to social norms. Violations are defined as minor and tolerable, so a person does not qualify as a deviant, and does not consider himself as such. His deviations are of a single nature and look in the eyes of others, rather, as an eccentricity, a little prank or a mistake.

    Secondary is called deviation, which does not fit into the socio-social framework and is clearly defined as deviant behavior.

    The problem of deviant behavior has been in the spotlight since the emergence of psychology. (Wikipedia).


    The fight against deviations involves an integrated approach using psychotherapy, psychocorrection and medicines.






    Influence on the thinking of a teenager with the aim of his awareness of personality traits, the development of self-regulation skills

    Stabilization of emotional status, development of attention

    Complementary method of management of deviant patients who have psychotic and neurological diseases


    During the conversations, conflict situations are analyzed with the definition of possible options for actions and reactions

    Psychocorrection increases the effectiveness of psychotherapy, gives self-confidence, arouses interest in studies and professional activities.

    The level of aggression is reduced by lithium preparations, antipsychotics and anticonvulsants. The choice of specific means depends on the manifestations of deviant behavior

    Meetings with a psychologist or psychotherapist are also recommended for parents, which allows you to quickly and efficiently restore full-fledged relationships in the family. You can consult with a competent psychologist remotely, by phone. We work for you around the clock.


    How do medications help with deviations?


    Modern medicine offers many drugs that can be taken to correct deviant behavior. The course of treatment may consist of antidepressants, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, sedatives. Doctors almost always prescribe B vitamins.

    What is super motivation?


    This means that the focus on results is simply prohibitive. According to psychologists, this form of deviant behavior is a kind of compensation for experiences, deprivations in childhood or adolescence. History knows many such people - for example, Napoleon had a high motivation for power and success due to the fact that he was very lonely as a child.

    Do physical features of a person matter - facial features, for example?


    There are no physical criteria that predetermine deviant behavior. Although a number of experts have stated certain differences in the appearance of asocial personalities (Cesare Lombroso). But their theories were found to be untenable. After all, it is known that many criminals with angelic faces sometimes committed terrible deeds. Whereas outwardly ugly individuals with rude, "criminal" facial features often prefer to smooth out conflicts.

    Is it possible to prevent deviant behavior in difficult teenagers?


    Yes, the main component of success is control over studies and leisure activities. Conversations and beliefs can be safely rejected, as they will not produce results. Such teenagers perceive strict requirements quite calmly, so the risk of "damaging the psyche" is minimal.

    Expert opinion

    Deviant behavior is due to social, biological and educational factors that require special attention when working with young people. Some sources argue that deviations cannot be excluded from society, while noting their progression in society during crises.

    In short, behavioral deviations occur more often when people cannot meet basic needs. According to sociologists, today about 85% of the population is demoralized, confused due to lack of demand and low quality of life. All this leads to the fact that "the end justifies the means", and gives rise to extremism and corruption.

    The salvation of the drowning is the work of the drowning themselves. This motto should be adopted, because only the person himself can help himself and his children, embarking on the path of self-development and self-healing.

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