Positive deviance

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Positive deviance (PD) is an approach to behavioral and social change based on the observation that in any community there are people whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge than their peers. These individuals are referred to as positive deviants. [1] [2] [3]


The concept first appeared in nutrition research in the 1970s. Researchers observed that despite the poverty in a community, some poor families had well nourished children. Some suggested using information gathered from these outliers to plan nutrition programs. [4] [5]


Positive deviance is a strength-based approach which is applied to problems requiring behavior and social change. It is based on the following principles: [6]

Collective intelligence

Collective intelligence (CI) is shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals and appears in consensus decision making. The term appears in sociobiology, political science and in context of mass peer review and crowdsourcing applications. It may involve consensus, social capital and formalisms such as voting systems, social media and other means of quantifying mass activity. Collective IQ is a measure of collective intelligence, although it is often used interchangeably with the term collective intelligence. Collective intelligence has also been attributed to bacteria and animals.

Original application

The PD approach was first operationalized and applied in programming in the field by Jerry and Monique Sternin through their work with Save the Children in Vietnam in the 1990s (Tuhus-Dubrow, Sternin, Sternin & Pascale). [1] [6] [7]

The Save the Children Fund, commonly known as Save the Children was established in the United Kingdom in 1919 in order to improve the lives of children through better education, health care, and economic opportunities, as well as providing emergency aid in natural disasters, war, and other conflicts.

Vietnam Country in Southeast Asia

Vietnam, officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula. With an estimated 94.6 million inhabitants as of 2016, it is the 15th most populous country in the world. Vietnam shares its land borders with China to the north, and Laos and Cambodia to the west. It shares its maritime borders with Thailand through the Gulf of Thailand, and the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia through the South China Sea. Its capital city is Hanoi, while its most populous city is Ho Chi Minh City.

At the start of the pilot 64% of children weighed in the pilot villages were malnourished. Through a PD inquiry, the villagers found poor peers in the community that through their uncommon but successful strategies, had well-nourished children. These families collected foods typically considered inappropriate for children (sweet potato greens, shrimp, and crabs), washed their children's hands before meals, and actively fed them three to four times a day instead of the typical two meals a day provided to children. [8] [9]

Without knowing it, PDs had incorporated foods already found in their community that provided important nutrients: protein, iron, and calcium. A nutrition program based on these insights was created. Instead of simply telling participants what to do differently, they designed the program to help them act their way into a new way of thinking. To attend a feeding session, parents were required to bring one of the newly identified foods. They brought their children and while sharing nutritious meals, learned to cook the new foods. [8]

At the end of the two year pilot, malnutrition fell by 85%. [8] Results were sustained, and transferred to the younger siblings of participants. [9]

This approach to programming was different in important ways. Based on a community's own assets, the positive deviance approach operates within the specific cultural context of a given community (village, business, schools, ministry, department, hospital) and is therefore always appropriate. It provides to community members the "social proof" that an uncommon behavior can be adopted by all because it is already practiced by a few within the community. The solutions come from the community, therefore avoid the "immune response" that can occur when outside experts enter a community with best practices that are often unsuccessful in promoting sustained change. (Sternin)

Since it was first applied in Vietnam, PD has been used to inform nutrition programs in over 40 countries by USAID, World Vision, Mercy Corps, Save the Children, CARE, Plan International, Indonesian Ministry of Health, Peace Corps, Food for the Hungry, among others.


A positive deviance approach may follow a series of steps. [6]

An invitation to change

A PD inquiry begins with an invitation from a community that wishes to address an important problem they face. This is an important first step of community ownership of a process that they will lead.

Defining the problem

This process occurs with the community at the center of defining the problem for themselves. This will often lead to a problem definition that differs from the outside "expert" opinion of the situation. A quantitative baseline is established by the community. This baseline provides an opportunity for the community to reflect on the problem given the evidence at hand, and also measure the progress toward their goals. This is also the beginning of the process to identify stakeholder and decision-makers regarding the issue at hand. Additional stakeholders and decision-makers will be pulled in throughout the process as they are identified.

Determining the presence of PD individuals or groups

Through the use of data and observation, the community establishes that there are Positive Deviants in their midst.

Discovering uncommon practices or behaviors

This is the Positive Deviance Inquiry. The community, having identified positive deviants, sets out to find the behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs that allow the PD to be successful. The focus is on the successful strategies of the PD, not on making a hero of the person using the strategy. This self-discovery of people/groups just like them who have found successful solutions provide "social proof" that this problem can be overcome now, without outside resources.

Program design

Now that the community has identified successful strategies, they decide what strategies they would like to adopt, and design activities to help others access and practice these uncommon and other beneficial. Program design is not focused on spreading "best practices" but helping community members "act their way into a new way of thinking" through hands-on activities.

Monitoring and evaluation

PD-informed projects are monitored their programs and evaluated through a participatory process. As the monitoring will be decided on and performed by the community, the tools they create will be appropriate to the setting. This can allow even illiterate community members to participate through pictorial monitoring forms or other appropriate tools. Evaluation allows the community to see the progress they are making towards their goals and reinforces the changes they are making in behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs.

Scaling up

The scaling up of a PD project may happen through many mechanisms: the "ripple effect" of other communities observing the success and engaging in a PD project of their own, through the coordination of NGOs, or organizational development consultants. However the project is scaled up, the process of community discovery of PDs in their midst remains vital to the acceptance of new behaviors, attitudes, and knowledge.


Preventing hospital-acquired infections

The PD approach has been applied in hospitals in the United States, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Colombia, and England to stop the spread of hospital acquired infections such as c-diff and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) evaluated pilot programs in the U.S. and found units using the approach decreased their infections by 30-73%. [10]

Additionally, it has been used in health care setting increase the incidence of hand washing, and improving care for patients immediately after a heart attack. [11]

Primary care (Bright Spotting)

Termed "Bright Spotting", [12] instead of positive deviance, the primary care pilot initiative first took place in rural New Hampshire and is still ongoing. The outpatient clinic identified a complex patient population, from the clinics perspective, studied the risk factors of that population, then identified measures that would signify that a patient has become healthy and sustained health. Once these measures were identified, using both data and the practices knowledge of patient's, "Bright Spots" were identified as those that meet both criteria of high risk and achieved health [13] Finding positive deviant patients through predictive analytics has also be suggested as a possible tool in discovery. [14] Once these patients were identified the care team performed qualitative research to discover their patterns of behavior. The results were then shown to the bright spots and their families who then designed a peer learning experience with the results in mind. The community meetings were then facilitated using both positive deviance facilitation techniques as well as applying the "Citizen Health Care Model" which is very similar to positive deviance approaches.

Public health

A PD project helped prisoners in a New South Wales prison stop smoking. Projects in Burkino Faso, Guatemala, Ivory Coast, and Rwanda addressed reproductive health in adolescents. [15] PD maternal and newborn health projects in Myanmar, Pakistan, [16] Egypt, [17] [18] and India [19] have improved women's access to prenatal care, delivery preparation, and antenatal care for mothers and babies.

PD projects to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS took place in 2002 with motorbike taxi drivers in Vietnam [20] and in 2004 with sex workers in Indonesia. [21] A PD project to enhance psychological resilience amongst adolescents vulnerable to depression and anxiety was implemented in the Netherlands. [22]

Child protection

A five-year PD project starting in 2003 to prevent girl trafficking in Indonesia with Save the Children and a local Indonesian NGO, helped them find viable economic options to stay in their communities. [3]

A PD project to stop Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Egypt began in 1998 with CEDPA (Center for Development and Population Activities), COST (Coptic Organization for Services and Training), Caritas in Minya, Community Development Agency (CDA), Monshaat Nasser in Beni Suef governorate, and the Center for Women's Legal Assistance (CEWLA). Efforts have already shown a reduction in the practice. [23]

In Uganda, a project with the Oak Foundation and Save the Children helped girls who were child soldiers with the Lords Resistance Army in Sudan reintegrate into their communities. [3]

In education

PD projects in New Jersey, California, Argentina, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso have addressed drop out rates and keeping girls in school.

Private sector

Proponents of PD within management science argue that in any population, even in such seemingly mundane groups as service personnel in a fast food environment, the positive deviants have attitudes, cognitive processes and behavioral patterns that lead to significantly improved performance in key metrics such as speed-of-service and profitability. Studies claim that widespread adoption of the positive deviant approaches consistently leads to significant performance improvement.

PD had been significantly extended to the private sector, by William Seidman and Michael McCauley. Their extensions include methodologies and technologies for:

Positive deviance was further extended to groups or organizations by Gary Hamel. [28] Hamel looks to Positive Deviant companies to set the example for "management innovation."

See also

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