What Is Deviant Behavior?

The Difference Between Socially Acceptable and Deviant Behavior

Teenagers selling and buying drugs

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Deviant behavior is defined as actions that violate social norms, which may include both informal social rules or more formal societal expectations and laws. Socially acceptable behavior, on the other hand, refers to the actions that are generally viewed as being appropriate to engage in when in the presence of other people.

This article discusses what causes deviant behavior and how it differs from socially acceptable behavior. It also covers different types of deviant behavior and how some behaviors, such as addiction, can span from socially acceptable to deviant.

Causes of Deviant Behavior

There are a variety of theories that explain why people engage in deviant behavior, including psychological, biological, and sociological explanations.

In reality, there are likely many factors that play a role in deviant behavior. These include genetics, personality, upbringing, environment, and societal influences.

It is also important to note that what is considered deviant can vary from one culture to the next. Other factors—including sex and socioeconomic status—also influence the informal and unwritten social rules and expectations that people are expected to conform to.

Psychological Explanations

Psychological theories of deviant behavior come from a variety of perspectives. The psychoanalytic approach, for example, might suggest that all people have repressed, unconscious urges that lead to social deviance.

Learning theories, on the other hand, might suggest that these behaviors are learned by watching others engage in deviant behaviors. In the context of substance use, this would suggest that people begin using drugs or misusing alcohol as a result of witnessing other people use substances. Research does suggest that social influences can play an important part in the onset of substance use and addiction.

Biological Explanations

Biological explanations for deviance suggest that genetic influences play a significant role in deviant behavior. When it comes to addiction, for example, research has found that genes play a significant part in the development of substance use problems.

Research suggests that between 40 to 60% of the risk for developing an addiction is due to genetics.

Genetics also has an effect on temperament and overall personality. These characteristics and traits may influence the likelihood that a person will engage in deviant behavior.

Sociological Explanations

One sociological explanation is Merton's strain theory, which suggests that there is a tension between a society's goals and the means that people have to reach those goals. As a result, people often turn to deviant behavior (such as stealing or selling drugs) as a way to attain socially acceptable societal ideals (such as having wealth).

Recap

Deviant behavior can have a variety of causes. Genetic, psychological, and sociological factors can all influence different types of social deviance.

Addiction and Deviant Behavior

Addiction—from drinking to gambling to sex—can involve socially acceptable behavior or socially deviant behavior. Having a drink or two after work is a socially acceptable form of alcohol use; getting drunk and then attempting to drive home is considered deviant behavior.

Deviance is a sociological concept referring to behaviors that violate social rules and norms. People who have substance use disorders are often described as being socially deviant because they do not meet society's expectations for what is considered acceptable behavior.

Behavior that is perceived as socially deviant is highly stigmatized, which often causes as many or more problems for the person engaging in the behavior than the addiction itself—if there even is an addiction.

There is a large gray area between socially deviant behavior and socially accepted or "sanctioned" behavior. Certain sub-cultures also develop around different substances, which include prescribed behaviors and social sanctions that keep people who use these substances feeling like they belong to the group.

The Continuum of Social Acceptability

There is a range of behavior, from socially acceptable to deviant, that is influenced by both formal and informal social norms. Examples of behaviors that are generally viewed as socially unacceptable include nose-picking, standing too close to other people, or not bathing regularly. Examples of deviant behavior include drug use, theft, murder, excessive alcohol use, and assault.

In order to understand the continuum that ranges from social acceptability to social deviance, it can be helpful to look at specific examples, such as in the case of substance use. The table below shows some examples of common addictive behaviors, which illustrate the continuum from socially deviant to socially problematic to socially acceptable behaviors in mainstream Western cultures.

Socially Deviant  Socially Problematic  Socially Acceptable 
Alcoholism Binge drinking Occasional/social drinking
Underage drinking Public drunkenness Drinking in "drinking establishments"
  Drinking at the wrong time/place  
  Methadone maintenance  
  Medical marijuana  
Illegal drug use Painkiller overuse Appropriate painkiller use
  Cigarette smoking  
  Binge eating Moderate eating
  Overeating  
Excessive gambling Losing a lot of money in a gambling binge Bingo, lotteries, trips to Las Vegas
Sexual abuse Promiscuity Sex within a relationship
Exploitative sex Sex work  
  Hardcore pornography  
  Sexual harassment  

These are not meant to be rigid categorizations, but simply examples of how behaviors tend to be perceived — for example, illegal activities such as underage drinking are classed as "deviant," whereas in reality, this is quite common and often accepted by youth and adults.

Some behaviors have shifted position in recent decades, for example, smoking cigarettes is socially problematic, but not yet socially deviant, while it was socially acceptable 30 years ago.

As noted previously, many addictive behaviors are considered acceptable by mainstream society and are even encouraged. Alcohol is arguably one of the most harmful drugs in use, but its consumption by adults is accepted and encouraged in every stratum of society, including the highest classes.

Furthermore, you can actually ostracize yourself by not drinking alcohol in some social situations where it's expected.

Types of Deviant Behavior

Deviant behavior can include both informal and formal deviance from social norms. Informal types of deviance are things that are considered socially unacceptable and inappropriate. Formal types of deviant behavior are those that violate codified laws, regulations, and other rules.

Examples of Informal Deviant Behavior

These types of deviant behavior tend to be considered socially unacceptable, but they do not violate laws. Examples of informal deviance include:

  • Gossiping about people behind their back
  • Showing up late to work
  • Borrowing items and not returning them
  • Telling inappropriate jokes at work
  • Lying to others
  • Chewing with your mouth open
  • Swearing in public
  • Staring inappropriately

Examples of Formal Deviant Behavior

These behaviors are generally classified as criminal acts and are subject to punishment. Some of these behaviors may be seen as less serious, while others are considered the most deviant forms of human behavior. These behaviors include:

  • Domestic violence
  • Rape, sexual harassment, and stalking
  • Murder
  • Theft and robbery
  • Assault, violence, bullying
  • Fraud
  • Addiction, substance use, DUI, and drug trafficking

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes deviant behavior?

    Deviant behavior does not generally have a single, identifiable cause. It is often the result of a variety of factors, including genetics, life experience, the environment the individual lives in, and social pressures. Research also suggests that certain personality traits may also play a role in deviant behavior.

  • What are some examples of socially deviant behavior?

    Examples of formal deviant behavior, which violates codified laws, include rape, murder, domestic violence, robbery, assault, assault, arson, vandalism, fraud, drug abuse, and animal cruelty. Examples of informal deviant behavior, which is often considered socially unacceptable, include showing up late to work, swearing in public, using inappropriate gestures, lying, and gossiping.

  • How can I stop engaging in deviant behaviors?

    On a societal level, deviant behaviors are often dealt with using deterrence and punishment. If you are trying to stop deviant behavior such as substance use, finding support is essential. Talking to a mental health professional can help you get the support, resources, and tools that you need to change your behavior.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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