What is Deviant Behavior?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Deviant behavior is behavior which does not adhere to widely-accepted social or cultural norms. For example, murder is a form of extreme deviant behavior which violates the cultural norm which states that it is unacceptable to kill another human being. There are a number of approaches to the study of deviance, along with explanations for why deviant behavior occurs, and how it might be addressed. Numerous colleges and universities offer coursework in this subject, and there are professional publications dedicated to this topic, including the creatively named “Deviant Behavior.”

Cultural norms and expected behavior are taught during childhood.
Cultural norms and expected behavior are taught during childhood.

The first step in understanding deviant behavior is the study of cultural and social norms. Norms vary widely across cultures, and in some cases, behavior which is polite or expected in one culture may be considered rude or inappropriate in another. The study of norms includes the history of such norms, the evolutions of norms over time, and the study of changes which occur in norms as society itself shifts. For example, wearing gloves in public was once a social norm for ladies in much of the Western world, but would now be considered slightly eccentric unless the weather was cold.

Criminal activities such as theft or murder are extreme forms of deviant behavior.
Criminal activities such as theft or murder are extreme forms of deviant behavior.

Deviance can be viewed from psychological, biological, and sociological perspectives. From the perspective of sociology, issues such as class can play a role in deviant behavior. Theft, a common instance of deviant behavior, could be said to be driven by sociological pressures such as poverty. Biologists may be interested in variations in the brain which lead to expressions of deviance, along with the biological motivations for normal behavior. Psychologists are interested in the thought processes behind normal and deviant behavior, ranging from depression, which may cause people to act out, to the study of early childhood development, which explains how people learn about behavioral boundaries.

Bullying is often a precursor to deviant behavior later in life.
Bullying is often a precursor to deviant behavior later in life.

Theories about deviant behavior posit a range of possible explanations. Many reflect an interdisciplinary approach, acknowledging that many factors can come together to influence behavior. Theories have also changed over the years, and have influenced the approach to issues like law enforcement, criminal justice, and treatment of the mentally ill. Forcing the unemployed into workhouses to motivate them into conforming with the norm which expects people to work, for example, is not a practice used today, although it was popularly embraced in the 19th century.

Deviant behavior includes physical aggression.
Deviant behavior includes physical aggression.

Understanding deviant behavior and the motivations behind it can be valuable for people in a wide range of settings. Doctors, for example, may like to know why some patients do not comply with medication regimens, while teachers may want to know about the roots of bullying and how to address students who act out in class.

Sociological issues such as poverty contribute to deviant behavior.
Sociological issues such as poverty contribute to deviant behavior.
People with low self-esteem are more likely to engage in deviant behavior.
People with low self-esteem are more likely to engage in deviant behavior.
Engaging in gossip can be considered deviant behavior.
Engaging in gossip can be considered deviant behavior.
Shoplifting is a form of deviant behavior.
Shoplifting is a form of deviant behavior.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


Again, if a child continues to display "deviant" behavior - theft, drug use, lack of concern for consequences, just an "I don't care" attitude, how do you correct deviant behavior?


How does the background information of an individual assist in a psychological understanding of one's criminal or deviant behavior?


For every action, there is a reaction. If you act on your paranoia, the rest of society will act on it to show you you're delusional. So get the facts straight.


Paranoia, spotlight effect and illusory correlation are common in some deviants who do not commit crimes and use social psychology to immunize themselves from the corrective measures of the corporate body, for their own personal motives.

If you expose 'correctional wrongdoing' with untrue correlations, based only on observation, then you are not seeking the facts to back up the claims. You cannot understand the intents of the given authority and how they run things, or what culture they run to suit the majority.

It's what you do, not feel, that gets you to take responsibility and change your behavior. At the lowest levels, self-centered and sometimes unsociable control freaks tend to have great difficulty understanding why such treatment is used, until they have had enough pressure to internalize and accept their character flaws (since they are the only one's complaining).

It's to remind them that in such an environment, the collective cannot, and will not, make changes to accommodate the interests of one individual, but for what best suits the corporate interests. That's why it's imperative that deviants/hipsters take their place and change their attitudes if possible, rather than blame how corporations do business or what methods of governance are used. Now is simply not a suitable time to complain.

It would be wise to complain less and keep trying to expand areas of interest. There will always be things to be done.


Social pariahs need to understand that no one is their enemy. It's just that they need to be careful, and be thankful for what they have. If they've achieved so much despite their life of suffering with the little they had, they are truly unique.

However, they need to eventually change also to accommodate the majority, as far as working society is concerned.

But never give up your identity, because it's your character. Give up your character and you give up the very thing that makes you alive.


In some minor cases, borderline adult deviants *can* be reformed through social pressure, and it is possible for them learn from it, depending on how severe the pressure. Hopefully this will broaden their horizons considering the greater body of needs of others with more priority than their own.

Otherwise, their attitudes will stay unchallenged. Self-assured patterns of behavior will remain uncorrected, and it will cause their own problems, make them believe they have larger entitlements, and lose their sense of urgency and personal responsibility. It is important to keep communities strong by encouragement and to actively participate socially.

Making sure that person is encouraged enough, not provoked, but being provocatively taught by others to participate in social gatherings; part of it is humbling the will and ambition. The person needs to cooperate.


How does deviant behavior affect our society?


People who grow up in a deviant often are the worst for deviant behavior.


What are the effects of deviant behavior?


Deviant behavior can be as a result of relationship with people.


is deviant behavior hereditary could it be that behavior is predisposed to our offspring and due to environmental factors certain deviant acts are brought about due to parental traits?


psychologically deviant behavior is caused by the way and manner the person associates himself with other peers.


I agree with Poundpuppy somewhat. We are taught how to treat others and if all we know is abuse then that is what we will do to others.

On the other hand, if we know and believe that our experiences are not what people want, we will seek more information, pay attention to to how others intact and learn.

I grew up in an abusive home, physical and psychological. It wasn't at all the place for anyone to be in. I figured out quite early that the environment was unsafe and not nurturing. It was the words and the opposing actions that made it clear. Not all children are that fortunate, and even adults don't get it!

Some parents instill deviant behavior into their children, perhaps not knowingly, just believing their delusions. Business, organizations, clubs, associations can perpetuate this, so it it isn't all about children, adults are also prey. Critical thinking is the way to make this an non-issue.

Teaching these skills at the most basic level and continuing to fine tune them, will get rid of cults, abuse, bullying, tea parties, wingnuts etc. and expose those left on this path as just what they are: sociopaths.


I have to disagree with poundpuppy. Not all children who have been abused or molested as children grow up and move on to repeat the actions done to them. Actually, it's only a very small percentage of children who will display these behaviors later in life.

However, having suffered psychological traumas like abuse can have a varied effect on their stability and behavior as adults. Many deal with aggression, depression and low self esteem.


Deviant behavior can stem from a biological or psychological aspect. But it can also be a learned behavior.

Children who are beaten by their parents or molested by a trusted adult often turn around and repeat those behaviors when they are adults. These children are taught that the behavior was OK, so they turn around and do it themselves to other children. Sometimes, breaking the cycle of the learned behavior can break the deviant behavior.


Psychology is one class or course of study that can really help you understand what deviant behavior is and why it occurs in some people. While it mentions here that extreme behavior, like murder, can be deviant it’s also important to know the little things that can be considered “deviant.”

Being able to identify and correct deviant behavior early on in childhood when it first develops and create major breakthroughs that will cause the individual to correct their behavior in some cases. While deviant behavior is a phrase that’s typically associated with “bad” behavior, it can also be put with behavior that’s not “normal” like being withdrawn and anti-social to a harmful degree.

Post your comments
Forgot password?