nice deviance

A complete stranger offers to buy your gas, what would you do? An OSU class looks to find out
Victoria Peterson walked in to Dutch Bros. at Northwest Kings Boulevard and Monroe Avenue on a recent Monday afternoon for a pick-me-up before she dove into physics homework.
With no line of customers in her way, the Oregon State University junior walked to the register and ordered a strawberry- and lime-flavored Red Bull.
As Peterson reached into her wallet, she heard a voice behind her:
“Can I pay for her drink, too?” asked Caitlin Hendricks.
Peterson was pleasantly surprised but still taken aback; she and Hendricks didn’t know each other.
“That’s so nice of you! Thank you,” Peterson told Hendricks.
After a brief chat, the two parted ways.
Hendricks’ random act of kindness wasn’t entirely random: She was completing an assignment for sociology professor Michelle Inderbitzin’s deviant behavior and social control class at OSU, which studies the concept of social deviance and how it can vary based on history and context.
Inderbitzin has assigned the “positive deviance” exercise in her social deviance class at OSU for six years. She asks students to simply do something nice for a stranger — bag someone else’s groceries, for example, or hold an umbrella over someone’s head while it’s raining. Students then write a page-long recap of their experience, focusing on the recipient’s reactions as well as their own feelings before and after the act and discuss their experience in class.
Sociologists define deviance as an act or behavior that falls outside social norms; deviance ranges from criminal acts to interrupting someone who’s speaking.
Most consider deviance to be negative, but Inderbitzin uses this exercise to show how deviance can actually be positive.
“It stretches our (definition) of deviance a little further,” she said.
She’s said students have discovered a wide range of reactions while conducting the act, both on and off campus.
And just because Corvallis by most counts is fairly special — it’s the U.S. city with the largest percentage of bike commuters and most patents per capita, for example — doesn’t mean its population acts differently when it’s  put in an abnormal, albeit brief, situation.
Some recipients in the positive deviance flee: They refuse the free coffee, for example, or run from an outstretched umbrella.
“People at times just get really uncomfortable when something out of the ordinary happens,” Inderbitzin said. “It’s hard to accept just pure random kindness from strangers.”
And that discomfort isn’t isolated to the recipient; the students often feel nervous immediately before the act. This feeling convinces many students that even positive acts can be deviant.
“They realize they’re going to be breaking a norm, even though it’s going to be positive,” Inderbitzin said. “There’s still a real discomfort in doing it.”
But not all people react uncomfortably; Inderbitzin said many react very positively — like Peterson with her coffee drink — and added that a few students over the years have scored dates with the recipients.
Before leaving Peterson at Dutch Bros., Hendricks said the act felt a little unnerving. But Peterson’s grateful reaction made her day.
“I’m glad she was happy,” Hendricks said.
Not-so-deviant random acts of kindness
1. Grab a couple dozen sweets or bagels for coworkers
2. Help someone load groceries into his car
3. Hand a $10 bill to a gas attendant pumping a stranger’s car to put toward the final bill
4. Leave a hefty tip for friendly service at your favorite restaurant
5. Donate unused books to the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library or Albany Public Library
6. Leave change in a person’s parking meter
7. Let someone who appears in a rush step in front of you in line at a cash register
8. Rake your neighbor’s yard, if you know he’ll appreciate it
9. Say “good morning” or “hello” to everyone you encounter in a given day
10. Compliment a stranger
Have you encountered deviance?
Have you encountered a random act of deviance - positive or negative - giving or receiving? Share it with us. In 300 words or fewer, send your story to along with your name and address.
Contact Gazette-Times reporter Gail Cole at 541-758-9510 or