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When Deviants Do Good (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
99 points by rmah 1691 days ago | hide | past | web | 26 comments | favorite



Summary: in many cases it's more effective to promote the spread of existing indigenous innovation than to try to introduce innovation from outside. Or, to look at it another way, the bottleneck is often not invention, but diffusion.


Or that existing members of a community have more influence on the community in question than outsiders do. Shocking no?

I think anyone who's ever done any kind of training or system implementation figures this out very quickly. The first step is always find the influencers and get them on your side. After that it's a piece of cake.


Except this story wasn't about finding the influencers - if the healthier families were influential, there wouldn't have been much need for the outside intervention. To take your analogy, this would be more like modeling your system around the most successful practices at your implementation site as opposed to designing a system and forcing compliance.


A good point. I think you're correct in what the article's focus is and I way oversimplified what it actually does.

To take the reasoning a bit further - what the program is really doing is finding examples of the behavior they want to encourage, then turning the practitioners of that behavior into influencers.

Which is an altogether different thing than what I'd outlined. And also far trickier I'd imagine.


The article describes neither finding examples of a behavior they want to encourage, nor turning anyone into influencers.

First, they start with a desired result they want to encourage, and then seek out what behaviors are currently leading to that result.

Second, the approach to diffusing those behaviors described is not simply raising the influence of the people practicing them, and may or may not have that effect at all.

I recommend that you read the article with an eye to what it says instead of what you expected it would say before you started reading it.


Focusing on persuading influencers is an old strategy for innovation diffusion, and that's not what this article is about.


Yes, and this seems mainly an interesting persuasion technique. By finding a local 'natural experiment', and then expanding it via constant re-emphasis of its lessons, people could see the difference-in-results themselves.

What the Sternins discovered, after all, isn't so surprising: To avoid malnourishment, eat more things more often, even when you're sick. Oh, and wash your hands before eating.

The trick was convincing people, over the influence of whatever forklore/habits had them doing other things, to change.

I could imagine in some cultures, and sufficiently desperate conditions, the technique could generate a backlash, at least for the 'deviants'. For example, what if the anomalously-nourished children's families were transgressing norms in some more serious way, like sneaking food from a common store, or breaching religious dietary taboos?


It might depend on the transgression. I mean, that Uruguayan soccer team breached religious dietary taboos in a pretty major way when their plane crashed, and they were forgiven by the Catholic hierarchy; and there are exceptions for duress in most religious dietary laws.

Stealing food, on the other hand, is a prisoner's-dilemma defect move. You wouldn't improve the situation by persuading everyone to adopt it, which is specifically why it would generate a backlash.


From the article: “The essence of development is to help people build capacity to do things themselves,”

That is one of the most fundamentally Moral statements I have ever seen. Try replacing "development" with education. Or even better replace "development" with "raising your children".


> That is one of the most fundamentally Moral statements I have ever seen. Try replacing "development" with education. Or even better replace "development" with "raising your children".

The essence of the positive deviance idea is to let the children raise themselves by abandoning the methods of their parents (of tradition) and instead monitoring the best practices of their peers, but I suspect parents would (with some justice) object to this interpretation.


Talking to your children in an honest way as independent people, working with them to come up with innovative solutions to problems, being inspired by their peers who have managed to overcome the same problem (the deviants) sounds like an EXCELLENT idea. I don't object at all.


I just meant that experienced parents would recognize, and try to stem, the narcissistic potential of an idea that would encourage rebellion in their children.


What defines "rebellion"?


To many parents, rebellion means doing anything other than what the parents instruct.


This is an excellent article about and excellent idea. The use of the word deviant is unfortunate. I understand now they mean deviation from the mean. "Positive Deviance Initiative" sounds like a program for HIV+ sex offenders.


Really, the author is not stretching the meaning of the word deviant. It has always meant deviating from an accepted norm, and it means the same in this context. The social norm was to feed your kid rice 2x per day- the social deviants were the ones feeding their kids more often and animal proteins/greens. They were abnormal. The difference is we are used to hearing negative examples of deviance (crime, etc) when there are plenty of positive ones.

Deviance (a relative concept) is not the same as perversion (a moral concept).


The title of the article deliberately played up the "perversion" angle, though.


> the author is not stretching the meaning of the word deviant.

True, but most words have two meanings -- a formal one, and an emotional one. In this case, it seems the emotional meaning was overlooked.

> Deviance (a relative concept) is not the same as perversion (a moral concept).

But "deviance" is often used in a moral context -- consider the expression "deviant behavior". Just to make the point, the word "perversion" could be used in a neutral context, but only if its emotion baggage could be overlooked.

Ironically, one can say "standard deviation" in statistics without anyone taking it the wrong way -- it seems completely neutral when used that way.

Anyway, I wish they has asked me -- i would have told them to call it "The Black Swan Strategy."


> The use of the word deviant is unfortunate.

I agree -- it's very unfortunate. Typically, words have a formal meaning, and an emotional one. This word's emotional meaning was unfortunately ignored. Then, try to to repair the damage, they came up with "positive deviance", which only serves to highlight the error. And to think, any number of better alternatives exist:

"The Black Swan Strategy"

"Community Natural Selection"

"The Self-rescue Plan"

And my favorite:

"Science"


"The Black Swan Strategy"

But this really doesn't have anything to do with black swans... this technique isn't about a rare and unpredictable occurrence, but rather with a deviation from the norm.

"Community Natural Selection"

Again, this doesn't map to their findings -- the community was not selecting the preferential strategy, even though it was present in the community.

"Positive deviation" would have been a less sensational way to put it, but link-bait in and of itself isn't a bad thing, if the linked-to content delivers. Which I think is the case here.


> But this really doesn't have anything to do with black swans... this technique isn't about a rare and unpredictable occurrence ...

Sure it is -- that's why people didn't notice it until they were encouraged to look at the behavior of the outliers -- those few examples whose children, though poor, weren't malnourished.

> Again, this doesn't map to their findings -- the community was not selecting the preferential strategy, even though it was present in the community.

Umm, that's how "natural selection" is defined -- the rare behavior that confers an advantage. All these people needed was encouragement to look for the advantageous adaptation that was already present in the population.


To the people who hold a social norm, someone who violates the social norm is doing something outrageous. Even if it turns out that the violation is actually very positive.

If you gloss over the part where someone's norm is violated, you have missed an important aspect of this


> Then, try to to repair the damage, they came up with "positive deviance", which only serves to highlight the error

Good point. Their fix just made it worse.


But "When Science Does Good" doesn't sell papers... ;)


True -- it's a rather bland, predictable title. And it over-uses that already overused word "science".


For those who want to read more, Sternin wrote a book about it http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7978844-the-power-of-posi...




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