Psychological Explanations Of Deviant Behavior

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, psychological explanations, and sociological explanations. Following are some of the major psychological explanations for deviant behavior.

There are several fundamental assumptions that all psychological theories on deviance have in common.

First, the individual is the primary unit of analysis in psychological theories of deviance. That is, individual human beings are solely responsible for their criminal or deviant acts. Second, an individual’s personality is the major motivational element that derives behavior within individuals. Third, criminals and deviants are seen as suffering from personality deficiencies. Thus, 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 from a variety of things, including a diseased mind, inappropriate learning, improper conditioning, and the absence of appropriate role models or the strong presence of inappropriate role models.

Psychoanalytic Theory

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.

Cognitive Development Theory

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 preconventional 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 postconventional 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.

Learning Theory

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 shoplifting an item and not getting caught sees that the friend is not being punished for their actions and they are rewarded by getting to keep the item he or she stole. That individual might be more likely to shoplift, then, if they believe he or she 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.


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