Deviancy amplification spiral

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A deviancy amplification spiral (also called deviance amplification) is a media hype phenomenon defined by media critics as a cycle of increasing numbers of reports on a category of antisocial behaviour or some other 'undesirable' event, leading to a moral panic.

Origin of term[edit]

The process of deviancy amplification was first described by Leslie T. Wilkins.[1] Stanley Cohen adopted this theory in Folk Devils and Moral Panics, and applied it to the case scenario of the "Mods and Rockers", in which he identified the concept of the deviancy amplification spiral.[citation needed]


According to Cohen, the spiral starts with some 'deviant' act. Usually the deviance is criminal, but it can also involve lawful acts considered morally repugnant by a large segment of society. With the new focus on the issue, hidden or borderline examples that would not themselves have been newsworthy are reported, confirming the 'pattern'.

Reported cases of such 'deviance' are often presented as just 'the ones we know about' or the 'tip of the iceberg', an assertion that is nearly impossible to disprove immediately. For a variety of reasons, the less sensational aspects of the spiraling story that would help the public keep a rational perspective (such as statistics showing that the behavior or event is actually less common or less harmful than generally believed) tend to be ignored by the press.

As a result, minor problems begin to look serious and rare events begin to seem common. Members of the public are motivated to keep informed on these events, leading to high readership for the stories, feeding the spiral. The resulting publicity has the potential to increase the deviant behavior by glamorizing it, or by making it seem common or acceptable. In the next stage, public concern typically forces the police and the law enforcement system to focus more resources on dealing with the specific deviancy than it warrants.

Judges and magistrates then come under public pressure to deal out harsher sentences and politicians pass new laws to increase their popularity by giving the impression that they are dealing with the perceived threat. The responses by those in authority tend to reinforce the public's fear, while the media continue to report police and other law enforcement activity, amplifying the spiral.

The theory does not contend that moral panics always include the deviancy amplification spiral.

Eileen Barker asserts that the controversy surrounding certain new religious movements can turn violent in a deviancy amplification spiral.[2] In his autobiography, Lincoln Steffens details how news reporting can be used to create the impression of a crime wave where there is none, in the chapter "I Make a Crime Wave".

Button and Tunley[3] have also presented a theory that offers the opposite to deviancy amplification, which they call deviancy attenuation. In this they argue using the case of fraud that there are some large problems, which those in positions of power are able to attenuate through not accurately measuring it, leading to statistics which under-estimate the problem, leading to less resources dedicated to it, re-enforcing the belief of those in power it is not a problem.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wilkins, Leslie T. (Tavistock Publications 1964) [Routledge 2001] Social Deviance: Social Policy, Action, and Research (Retrieved 26 April 2014)
  2. ^ Barker, Eileen, Introducing New Religious Movements Archived October 14, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Retrieved 22 November 2006.
  3. ^ Button, Mark and Tunley, Martin (2015) Explaining Fraud Deviancy Attenuation in the United Kingdom. Crime, Law and Social Change, 63: 49-64 [1]

Further reading[edit]

  • Cohen, Stanley. Folk devils and moral panics. London: Mac Gibbon and Kee, 1972. ISBN 0-415-26712-9.
  • Section 3.4 Interpreting the crime problem of Free OpenLearn LearningSpace Unit DD100_1 originally written for the Open University Course, DD100.
  • Button, Mark and Tunley, Martin. (2015) Explaining Fraud Deviancy Attenuation in the United Kingdom. Crime, Law and Social Change, 63: 49-64