How Psychology Defines and Explains Deviant Behavior

Psychoanalytic Theory; Cognitive Development Theory; Learning Theory

Psychological theories of deviant behavior help explain why a rich and famous person like Winona Ryder would shoplift.
Steve Grayson/Getty Images

Deviant behavior is any behavior that is contrary to the dominant norms of society. There are many different theories on what causes a person to perform deviant behavior, including biological explanations, sociological explanations, as well as psychological explanations. While sociological explanations for deviant behavior focus on how social structures, forces, and relationships foster deviance, and biological explanations focus on physical and biological differences and how these might connect to deviance, psychological explanations take a different approach.

Psychological approaches to deviance all have some key things in common. First, the individual is the primary unit of analysis. This means that psychologists believe that individual human beings are solely responsible for their criminal or deviant acts. Second, an individual’s personality is the major motivational element that drives behavior within individuals. Third, criminals and deviants are seen as suffering from personality deficiencies, which means that crimes result from abnormal, dysfunctional, or inappropriate mental processes within the personality of the individual. Finally, these defective or abnormal mental processes could be caused by a variety of things, including a diseased mind, inappropriate learning, improper conditioning, and the absence of appropriate role models or the strong presence and influence of inappropriate role models.

Starting from these basic assumptions, psychological explanations of deviant behavior come mainly from three theories: psychoanalytic theory, cognitive development theory, and learning theory.

How Psychoanalytic Theory Explains Deviance

Psychoanalytic theory, which was developed by Sigmund Freud, states that all humans have natural drives and urges that are repressed in the unconscious. Additionally, all humans have criminal tendencies. These tendencies are curbed, however, through the process of socialization. A child that is improperly socialized, then, could develop a personality disturbance that causes him or her to direct antisocial impulses either inward or outward. Those who direct them inward become neurotic while those that direct them outward become criminal.

How Cognitive Development Theory Explains Deviance

According to the cognitive development theory, criminal and deviant behavior results from the way in which individuals organize their thoughts around morality and the law. Lawrence Kohlberg, a developmental psychologist, theorized that there are three levels of moral reasoning. During the first stage, called the pre-conventional stage, which is reached during middle childhood, moral reasoning is based on obedience and avoiding punishment. The second level is called the conventional level and is reached at the end of middle childhood. During this stage, moral reasoning is based on the expectations that the child’s family and significant others have for him or her. The third level of moral reasoning, the post-conventional level, is reached during early adulthood at which point individuals are able to go beyond social conventions. That is, they value the laws of the social system. People who do not progress through these stages may become stuck in their moral development and, as a result, become deviants or criminals.

How Learning Theory Explains Deviance

Learning theory is based on the principles of behavioral psychology, which hypothesizes that a person’s behavior is learned and maintained by its consequences or rewards. Individuals thus learn deviant and criminal behavior by observing other people and witnessing the rewards or consequences that their behavior receives. For example, an individual who observes a friend shoplift an item and not get caught sees that the friend is not punished for their actions and they are rewarded by getting to keep the stolen item. That individual might be more likely to shoplift, then, if he believes that he will be rewarded with the same outcome. According to this theory, if this is how deviant behavior is developed, then taking away the reward value of the behavior can eliminate deviant behavior.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Crossman, Ashley. "How Psychology Defines and Explains Deviant Behavior." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Crossman, Ashley. (2021, July 31). How Psychology Defines and Explains Deviant Behavior. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "How Psychology Defines and Explains Deviant Behavior." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).