Deviant Behavior

Deviant behavior is conduct that deviates from the societal norm. By this definition alone, deviance is neither good nor bad, but must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Such behavior may be described as “different,” or “unexpected,” and may elicit positive or negative responses from other people. Deviant behavior that becomes popularized, or seen as normal, is how societies change or revolutionize over time. In a legal context, deviant behavior refers to acts that are not only outside those society would consider normal, but which are unlawful as well. To explore this concept, consider the following deviant behavior definition.

Definition of Deviant Behavior


  1. Behavior that departs markedly from the societal norm.


1350-1400       Middle English

What is Deviant Behavior

Deviance has a place in statistical examination of events or actions, meaning that, when looking at how often a thing is done in any given society, one can see that a specific event deviates from the most common. For instance, when a nation which espouses freedom and welcomes people from all walks of life becomes fearful and locks up all people of a given nationality for a period, it could be seen as an example of deviant behavior. In the U.S., this occurred following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, when the government set up internment camps in which to confine Japanese Americans.

Even in statistical analysis, there is a difference between something that is “less frequent,” and something that is “less good,” or “less desirable.” As a legal term, deviant behavior refers to activities that are disapproved of by society, and which have legal consequences. While deviance has sociological and psychological implications, a great deal of effort has been put into research and theory of deviant behavior in crime.

Society’s Definition of Deviant Behavior

Deviance is defined by the social standards of any given community. There are, however, certain deviant behaviors that are considered universally to be criminal. The foremost example of deviant behavior universally shunned and abhorred is the taking of someone’s life without justification, or murder. Still, what one society considers to be murder, another may consider to be justifiable homicide. For example, some countries consider adultery to be a capital crime, for which the convicted person may receive the death penalty. Such a thing is unthinkable to most people in the United States.

Because society’s values change over time, acts once considered to be deviant and illegal, fall by the wayside. Once a particular people no longer consider such an act to the seriously deviant, such laws are often removed from the books, or are simply not enforced. In fact, there are many laws still on the books in the states that were once deemed by society to be necessary to prevent deviant behavior, which seem absurd by modern standards, such as:

  • In Memphis, it is against the law for a woman to drive a car down main street unless there is a man walking in front of the car with a red flag, warning other people on the road.
  • California’s Fish and Game Code Section 6883 makes it illegal for anyone to eat a frog that dies in the course of a frog jumping contest. This was likely enacted to protect frogs and competitors at the annual Calaveras County Jumping Frog Jubilee.
  • In Gainesville, Georgia, it is illegal to eat fried chicken using anything other than your hands.
  • In the city of New Orleans, it is against the law to curse at, or use obscene language toward, or in reference to, a firefighter while in the performance of his duty. The law was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
  • In Alabama, it is a criminal offense – against public health and morals – to engage in “shooting, hunting, gaming, card playing or racing” on Sunday. Violators of this law risk being fined $10 – $100, imprisonment in the county jail, or sentencing to “hard labor for the county” for up to three months.

Deviant Behavior Example in Child Murder

In 2009, 7-year old Rhia Almeida was raped and brutally murdered, her body dumped in a wash behind the killer’s home in Arizona. Kyle Alegria, who had been 19 years old at the time Rhia was killed, was convicted of the horrific crime, and ultimately sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 2013.

Dr. Matthew Mendel, the psychiatrist who had examined Alegria, reported that Alegria had begun showing deviant behavior at a very young, pre-school, age – and that his parents had fostered that behavior, even if they did not understand at the time. When he testified at the mitigation portion of the sentencing, as Alegria’s attorney sought to have the death penalty taken off the table, Dr. Mendel stated:

“If two parents had set out intentionally to create a child at enormously high-risk of criminal behavior, sexual deviance and a fusion of sex and violence, they could not have done a better job than Margo and Loretto Alegria did.”

Mendel described to the court how Alegria began watching both pornographic movies and violent horror films at home with his parents from a very early age, and that his parents were aware of the boy’s growing appetite for pornography. Alegria had told Mendel he had been raped when he was seven years old, by an older boy in the neighborhood, but his parents had not done anything about it when he told them. In detailed testimony, Mendel recounted Alegria’s confession to having developed a sexual attraction to his own mother, and his fantasies about her.

Dr. Mendel explained that Alegria’s deviant behavior stemmed from the convergence of violent and sexual images in his mind when he was young. In this example of deviant behavior, the murderer had developed an unnatural view of society’s acceptance of both sexual acts and extreme violence.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Capital Crime – A crime considered to be so serious, that death may be considered an appropriate punishment.
  • Justifiable Homicide – A killing without malice or criminal intent, such as killing in self-defense, or killing by a law enforcement officer in the fulfilling of his duties.
  • Mitigation – Circumstances that tend to lessen the intensity, force, or harshness of an act.