Some people are just different. And sometimes, it's exactly those differences that make them succeed where others fail. This "positive deviance" can be a clue to finding solutions for intractable social problems. At the Positive Deviance Initiative
, sponsored by Tufts University, they are studying the impact of positive outliers -- people who stand out because their behavior differs from others in their community, causing improvements in health, education, living conditions, and more. The Positive Deviance (PD) approach identifies the behaviors that have helped these rebels produce positive results, and then tries to teach these behaviors to others.
For example, a PD study discovered that in hospitals with low infection rates, staff members were regularly using hand sanitizers. In hospitals with high infection rates, they were not. By spreading this behavior to other hospitals, infection rates have been lowered significantly. A simple behavior change with dramatic results.
In Vietnam, the PD approach has been used by Save the Children
to combat widespread child malnutrition. At a time when 65% of Vietnamese children were malnourished, a team of PD researchers and volunteers discovered that some children of the very poorest families were not
malnourished. These "deviant" children had something in common. Their caretakers were supplementing the children's rice with small shrimp or crabs collected from rice paddies and the green tops cut from sweet potatoes -- nutritious foods available for free. They were also feeding the children at least 3 times per day instead of just twice, and washing their hands before meals. These behaviors, when taught to others in the community, rehabilitated 80% of the children whose families participated.
A PD project currently being funded by the Rockefeller Foundation
is seeking ways to decrease corruption in the developing world. The project is identifying the behaviors of the most ethical public officials and how they go about eliminating waste, fraud, and corruption, then trying to generalize and teach those behaviors. They believe that this type of abuse often results from lacking the skills to behave ethically, rather than a deliberate intent to hurt people.
What these inspiring examples highlight is that solving difficult problems often requires seeking out the rebels, dissenters, and independent thinkers in a community. For example, in Vietnam, many believed that the foods some families were using for additional nourishment were "inappropriate," because these foods were not traditionally fed to children. But the PD researchers showed that these deviants from normal behavior were producing results that those behaving traditionally couldn't achieve.
What the PD approach also suggests is that if you want to make an impact on solving challenging social problems, you may just need to become a rebel yourself. The key is to be not merely a dissenter, but a "positive deviant." Identify the people, places, and practices that are producing better results, determine what's being done that is outside the norm, and then copy it. If you can replicate the improved results simply by adopting the non-standard behaviors, you'll have discovered a new, unexpected solution. And even better,by teaching others to adopt the same deviant behavior, you can multiply your results on a grand scale.
Labels: social action, social entrepreneurs