An Experiment in Positive Deviance


All teens tend to break rules and social standards. But is it a result of some childish fears, or, vice versa, an act of rebellion? Which defense mechanisms do students use? This research paper will hopefully help you to adapt. Erving Goffman developed his theory of Impression Management to explain people’s desire to stress their strengths and talents in front of others. Some confuse it with boastfulness. To my mind, such behavior can be explained by two factors: a defense reaction and inferiority complex. Breaking social norms is a result of such behavior. Is there a chance of preventing this?

The Essence of Defense Mechanism

I think that the willingness to show up appears only after being pressed for something. One of the defense mechanisms people automatically apply to the reality or fact is a denial (Scheff). Bad singers do not recognize the fact they’ll never join a famous rock band. This mechanism keeps many people from moving on. I was writing for one magazine once. They published a couple of my articles, but I ignored their recommendations concerning the quality of my papers. That’s why our cooperation ended up shortly.

Another defense mechanism I got in touch with is a projection. My neighbor was always getting at her son for leaving his dirty dishes. In fact, most of the dishes are left by her. She tries to projects her laziness at her son. One more similar technique is a displacement: a person gets at his dog instead of the odious boss because of the social gap. To avoid the consequences of different defense mechanisms, one should involve a self-control or a consciously motivated behavior. It implies self-discipline, patience, and tolerance.

What are the reasons for people to use defense mechanisms? Often, meek creatures at school turn into the party animals by the end of their college. Such famous rock star as Kurt Cobain might be a perfect example. The problem is that the human being tends to take every word to heart. If one tells another he looks fat in those pants, most probably that person will become concerned about own weight. As the result, he will start persuading others in own slimness. Such phenomenon can be explained by the presence of a so-called reference group (Shibutani).

Self-Concept and Its Consequences

Source: GIPHY

Self-image is how we perceive ourselves. Most of the people see distorted reflections while staring in the mirror. By the approach to self-image, people can be divided into two groups. The members of the first group sell themselves short while other people oversell. As a rule, there is no golden mean in this situation. I used to overvalue my skills and abilities dozens of times. I expected such approach to self-concept would add up to my overall performance. In most cases, my attempts failed. A false self-concept prevents our progress and self-education.

Each time a human being is surrounded by other people, he loses his identity, trying to put a mask on.

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A lot of people behave differently in formal and informal environment. Some people ham up. The vision of Goffman reminded me of famous Shakespeare’s phrase: “All the world’s a stage”. Another proof is a Thomas theorem claiming that the definition of the situation causes the action (W.I. Thomas, 1928). A good example might be a strong man bravely entering the one-on-one fray, and the same man running away from five street robbers. In this case, the perception of danger and potential outcomes formed an individual’s behavior.

Front stage behavior relates to how we behave under certain life circumstances. I guess all people are addicted to acting front stage. Nobody will talk to his boss the same way he speaks with his wife, friend, or small son. This behavior is caused rather by the instinct for survival within a society. Role taking is not always a personal initiative – it’s rather a circumstance. Being an emotional person, my friend once faced a real challenge when applying for his first full-time job. He was hardly holding his temper on the job interview. The atmosphere was quite friendly and informal, but he was still expecting HRs to welcome him with the open arms. From one hand, he was forced to behave like someone else. On the contrary, he got the offer.

In my opinion, emotionally motivated behavior, which is relevant to front staging, is a fundamental reason for a social norms violation. Most of the conflicts occur when people are in a bad mood. Drugs and alcohol may stimulate aggression as well.

Another thing that makes it impossible to act the way we are is the set of values and beliefs that have to be obeyed. Despite these norms were brought to the light by people just like us, their absence would lead to chaos. The fear to be punished or convicted makes us act in a particular way.

The other side of the coin is a backstage behavior. It’s the moment of truth: an individual puts all his masks off when staying alone.

The only place where people act more naturally, I believe, is at home. As for me, I am also able to show my essence along with my close friends. I agree with Goffman on his intimate audience concept. I appreciate friendship as much as family relations.

But there is an approach to behavioral change that contradicts with the arguments above. It is called a Positive Deviance. I conducted research based on three types of Positive Deviance. Among all three (handing out spare change, giving compliments, and offering hugs and lollipops), I picked the last one. Last Friday, I tested this approach on the strangers within a busy campus. The results were amazing!

Out of the population of 30 people, 24 allowed me hugging them and received the lollipops in return.

The mood of each improved immediately.

To conclude, front stage behavior is based on the impression management while backstage behavior has nothing to do with it. Being yourself is not always good. Formal situations require established norms and compliance with the rules. People can share their emotions only within the informal conditions. Positive deviance can raise individual’s mood. People are more likely to put their masks off while being in a good mood. So, breaking social norms is not necessarily a negative social phenomenon.


Merton, R. (1995). The Thomas Theorem and The Matthew Effect. Social Forces, 74(2):379-424.

Shibutani, T. (1955). Reference Groups as Perspectives. American Journal of Sociology, The University of Chicago Press, Vol. 60, No. 6, pp. 562-569.

Scheff, T. J. (1979). Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama. Berkeley: U. of California Press.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Prentice-Hall, Inc.,

Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, pp. 1-19.