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Difficulties In Defining Abnormal Behaviour Essay

Abnormal Psychology

Saul McLeod published 2008, updated 2014

Abnormal psychology is a division of psychology that studies people who are "abnormal" or "atypical" compared to the members of a given society.

There is evidence that some psychological disorders are more common than was previously thought.

Depending on how data are gathered and how diagnoses are made, as many as 27% of some population groups may be suffering from depression at any one time (NIMH, 2001; data for older adults).

The definition of the word abnormal is simple enough but applying this to psychology poses a complex problem: what is normal? Whose norm? For what age? For what culture?

The concept of abnormality is imprecise and difficult to define. Examples of abnormality can take many different forms and involve different features, so that, what at first sight seem quite reasonable definitions, turns out to be quite problematical.

There are several different ways in which it is possible to define ‘abnormal’ as opposed to our ideas of what is ‘normal’.

Statistical Infrequency

Under this definition of abnormality, a person's trait, thinking or behavior is classified as abnormal if it is rare or statistically unusual.  With this definition it is necessary to be clear about how rare a trait or behavior needs to be before we class it as abnormal

For instance one may say that an individual who has an IQ below or above the average level of IQ in society is abnormal. 

However this definition obviously has limitations, it fails to recognize the desirability of the particular behavior. 

Going back to the example, someone who has an IQ level above the normal average wouldn't necessarily be seen as abnormal, rather on the contrary they would be highly regarded for their intelligence.

This definition also implies that the presence of abnormal behavior in people should be rare or statistically unusual, which is not the case.  Instead, any specific abnormal behavior may be unusual, but it is not unusual for people to exhibit some form of prolonged abnormal behavior at some point in their lives.

Strength: The statistical approach helps to address what is meant by normal in a statistical context. It helps us make cut – off points in terms of diagnosis.

Limitations: However, this definition fails to distinguish between desirable and undesirable behavior. For example, obesity is a statistically normal but not associated with healthy or desirable. Conversely high IQ is statistically abnormal, but may well be regarded as highly desirable.

Many rare behaviors or characteristics (e.g. left handedness) have no bearing on normality or abnormality.  Some characteristics are regarded as abnormal even though they are quite frequent.  Depression may affect 27% of elderly people (NIMH, 2001).  This would make it common but that does not mean it isn’t a problem

The decision of where to start the "abnormal" classification is arbitrary. Who decides what is statistically rare and how do they decide? For example, if an IQ of 70 is the cut-off point, how can we justify saying someone with 69 is abnormal, and someone with 70 normal ?

Violation of Social Norms

Every culture has certain standards for acceptable behavior, or socially acceptable norms. Norms are expected ways of behaving in a society according to the majority and those members of a society who do not think and behave like everyone else break these norms so are often defined as abnormal.

Under this definition, a person's thinking or behavior is classified as abnormal if it violates the (unwritten) rules about what is expected or acceptable behavior in a particular social group. Their behavior may be incomprehensible to others or make others feel threatened or uncomfortable.

Social behavior varies markedly when different cultures are compared. For example, it is common in Southern Europe to stand much closer to strangers than in the UK.  Voice pitch and volume, touching, direction of gaze and acceptable subjects for discussion have all been found to vary between cultures.

With this definition, it is necessary to consider: (i) The degree to which a norm is violated, the importance of that norm and the value attached by the social group to different sorts of violation. (ii) E.g. is the violation rude, eccentric, abnormal or criminal?

Limitations: The most obvious problem with defining abnormality using social norms is that there is no universal agreement over social norms. Social norms are culturally specific - they can differ significantly from one generation to the next and between different ethnic, regional and socio-economic groups. In some societies, such as the Zulu for example, hallucinations and screaming in the street are regarded as normal behavior.

Social norms also exist within a time frame, and therefore change over time.  Behavior that was once seen as abnormal may, given time, become acceptable and vice versa.  For example drink driving was once considered acceptable but is now seen as socially unacceptable whereas homosexuality has gone the other way.  Until 1980 homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder by the World Health Organization (WHO) but today is considered acceptable.

Social norms can also depend on the situation or context we find ourselves in. Is it normal to eat parts of a dead body? In 1972 a rugby team who survived a plane crash in the snow-capped Andes of South America found themselves without food and in sub-freezing temperatures for 72 days. In order to survive they ate the bodies of those who had died in the crash.

Failure to Function Adequately

Under this definition, a person is considered abnormal if they are unable to cope with the demands of everyday life.  They may be unable to perform the behaviors necessary for day-to-day living e.g. self-care, hold down a job, interact meaningfully with others, make themselves understood etc.

Rosenhan & Seligman (1989) suggest the following characteristics that define failure to function adequately:

    o Suffering

    o Maladaptiveness (danger to self)

    o Vividness & unconventionality (stands out)

    o Unpredictably & loss of control

    o Irrationality/incomprehensibility

    o Causes observer discomfort

    o Violates moral/social standards

One limitation of this definition is that apparently abnormal behavior may actually be helpful, function and adaptive for the individual.  For example, a person who has the obsessive-compulsive disorder of hand-washing may find that the behavior makes him cheerful, happy and better able to cope with his day.

Many people engage in behavior that is maladaptive/harmful or threatening to self, but we don’t class them as abnormal

 Adrenaline sports

 Smoking, drinking alcohol

 Skipping classes

Deviation from Ideal Mental Health

Under this definition, rather than defining what is abnormal, we define what is normal/ideal and anything that deviates from this is regarded as abnormal.  This requires us to decide on the characteristics we consider necessary to mental health.

Jahoda (1958) defined six criteria by which mental health could be measured:

    o Positive view of the self

    o Capability for growth and development

    o Autonomy and independence

    o Accurate perception of reality

    o Positive friendships and relationships

    o Environmental mastery – able to meet the varying demands of day-to-day situations

According to this approach, the more of these criteria are satisfied, the healthier the individual is.

Limitation: It is practically impossible for any individual to achieve all of the ideal characteristics all of the time.  For example, a person might not be the ‘master of his environment’ but be happy with his situation.  The absence of this criterion of ideal mental health hardly indicates he is suffering from a mental disorder.

Ethnocentric: Most definitions of psychological abnormality are devised by white, middle class men. It has been suggested that this may lead to disproportionate numbers of people from certain groups being diagnosed as "abnormal." 

For example, in the UK, depression is more commonly identified in women, and black people are more likely than their white counterparts to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Similarly, working class people are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness than those from non manual backgrounds.

Perspectives in Abnormal Psychology


Behaviorists believe that our actions are determined largely by the experiences we have in life, rather than by underlying pathology of unconscious forces. Abnormality is therefore seen as the development of behavior patterns that are considered maladaptive (i.e. harmful) for the individual.

Behaviorism states that all behavior (including abnormal) is learned from the environment (nurture), and that all behavior that has been learnt can also be ‘unlearnt’ (which is how abnormal behavior is treated).

The emphasis of the behavioral approach is on the environment and how abnormal behavior is acquired, through classical conditioning, operant conditioning and social learning.

Classical conditioning has been said to account for the development of phobias. The feared object (e.g. spider or rat) is associated with a fear or anxiety sometime in the past. The conditioned stimulus subsequently evokes a powerful fear response characterized by avoidance of the feared object and the emotion of fear whenever the object is encountered.

Learning environments can reinforce (re: operant conditioning) problematic behaviors. E.g. an individual may be rewarded for being having panic attacks by receiving attention from family and friends – this would lead to the behavior being reinforced and increasing in later life.

Our society can also provide deviant maladaptive models that children identify with and imitate (re: social learning theory).


The cognitive approach assumes that a person’s thoughts are responsible for their behavior. The model deals with how information is processed in the brain and the impact of this on behavior.

The basic assumptions are:

  • Maladaptive behavior is caused by faulty and irrational cognitions.

  • It is the way you think about a problem, rather than the problem itself that causes mental disorders.

  • Individuals can overcome mental disorders by learning to use more appropriate cognitions.

The individual is an active processor of information. How a person, perceives, anticipates and evaluates events rather than the events themselves, which will have an impact on behavior. This is generally believed to be an automatic process, in other words we do not really think about it.

In people with psychological problems these thought processes tend to be negative and the cognitions (i.e. attributions, cognitive errors) made will be inaccurate:

These cognitions cause distortions in the way we see things; Ellis suggested it is through irrational thinking, while Beck proposed the cognitive triad.

Medical / Biological

The medical model of psychopathology believes that disorders have an organic or physical cause. The focus of this approach is on genetics, neurotransmitters, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, biochemistry etc.

For example, in terms of biochemistry – the dopamine hypothesis argues that elevated levels of dopamine are related to symptoms of schizophrenia.

The approach argues that mental disorders are related to the physical structure and functioning of the brain.

For example, differences in brain structure (abnormalities in the frontal and pre-frontal cortex, enlarged ventricles) have been identified in people with schizophrenia.


The main assumptions include Freud’s belief that abnormality came from the psychological causes rather than the physical causes, that unresolved conflicts between the id, ego and superego can all contribute to abnormality, for example:

  • Weak ego: Well- adjusted people have a strong ego that is able to cope with the demands of both the id and the superego by allowing each to express itself at appropriate times. If, however, the ego is weakened, then either the id or the superego, whichever is stronger, may dominate the personality.
  • Unchecked id impulses: If id impulses are unchecked they may be expressed in self-destructive and immoral behavior. This may lead to disorders such as conduct disorders in childhood and psychopathic [dangerously abnormal] behavior in adulthood.
  • Too powerful superego: A superego that is too powerful, and therefore too harsh and inflexible in its moral values, will restrict the id to such an extent that the person will be deprived of even socially acceptable pleasures. According to Freud this would create neurosis, which could be expressed in the symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as phobias and obsessions.

Freud also believed that early childhood experiences and unconscious motivation were responsible for disorders.

An Alternative View: Mental illness is a Social Construction

Since the 1960’s it has been argued by anti-psychiatrists that the entire notion of abnormality or mental disorder is merely a social construction used by society. Notable anti-psychiatrists were Michel Foucault, R.D. Laing, Thomas Szasz and Franco Basaglia. Some observations made are;

  • Mental illness is a social construct created by doctors. An illness must be an objectively demonstrable biological pathology, but psychiatric disorders are not.
  • The criteria for mental illness is vague, subjective and open to misinterpretation criteria.
  • The medical profession uses various labels eg. depressed, schizophrenic to exclude those whose behavior fails to conform to society’s norms.
  • Labels and consequently treatment can be used as a form of social control and represent an abuse of power.
  • Diagnosis raises issues of medical and ethical integrity because of financial and professional links with pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies.


Jahoda, M. (1958). Current concepts of positive mental health.

National Institute of Mental Health. (2001). Depression research at the National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression/complete-index.shtml.

Rosenhan, D. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1989). Abnormal Psychology Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2014). Abnormal psychology. Retrieved www.simplypsychology.org/abnormal-psychology.html

Audio Broadcasts

Listen to a MIT undergraduate lecture on Defining Mental Illness.

Listen to a MIT undergraduate lecture on Causing Mental Illness.

BBC Radio 4 Broadcast on why some people have schizophrenia and others don't.

BBC Radio 4 Broadcast on David Rosenhan's Pseudo-Patient Study.

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Clinical Assessment Procedures

Clinical Psychology

DSM-IV Classification of Mental Disorders

Culture and Abnormality

Abnormal Psychology Models Summary

What has neuroscience ever done for us?

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Abnormal Psychology Introduction

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Abnormal behavior


Abnormal Behavior, what is it? Who is to say, what is normal and what is not normal? Now, take it a step further. Who determines abnormal behavior verses normal behavior? Who differentiate between the two? Is it us, (the people, who claim to be normal), your parents, your peers, your environment, or is it society? Often times we are quick to pass judgment on individuals who are acting in a manner that is unacceptable, but unacceptable to, whom? We all have been taught the difference between right and wrong, but is that difference so great that it flirts along the lines of what is normal, and what is not normal? Is it normal for a two-year-old child to talk back to his or her parents? Is it normal for a people to speak to one another when they have made eye contact? Is it normal for men to watch football on Sundays, and for women to watch daytime drama shows during the week? Before we can answer any of these questions we need to know what is behavior, and then differentiate between what is normal, and what is abnormal behavior?

Behavior is the manner in which a person behaves, whether they can conform to the standards, or whether they cannot conform to the standards. And once again I pose the question who sets the standards? Society, that’s who. We as a people have already laid out a path of what we think is acceptable and what is not acceptable, the same way that we as a society have deemed what is normal and what is abnormal behavior. When we ask a society how they define abnormal behavior, we are asking first, where does that society draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior and, secondly, which unacceptable behaviors the society views as evidence of "abnormal" rather than simply, undesirable. How are these questions best answered? It is simple, these questions are best answered through what we call society’s norms.

It has been said that psychology "has a long history but a short past." This is certainly true of abnormal psychology. Although examples of bizarre behavior are seen throughout history, and considerations of why people act as they do have appeared and reappeared in literature and philosophy, the scientific study of abnormal behavior really only began around 1900. Society begins with a discussion of the difficulty of defining abnormal behavior and of the importance of developing explanations supported by scientific evidence. Then, the meaning of the term "abnormal" is discussed along with a description of contemporary procedures to classify the different ways psychological disturbance may be expressed. Psychologist express an emphasis on the importance of obtaining scientific data, and a description of the various research methods used to study behavior, both abnormal and normal.

Abnormal behavior is defined as behavior that is considered to be maladaptive or deviant by the social culture in which it occurs. Though disagreement exists regarding which particular behaviors can be classified as abnormal, psychologists have defined several criteria for purposes of classification. One is that the behavior occurs infrequently and thus deviates from statistical norms. Another is that the behavior deviates from social norms of acceptable behavior. A third is that the behavior is maladaptive, that it has adverse affects on the individual or on the individual's social group. Lastly, abnormality may be defined based on the subjective feelings of misery, depression, or anxiety of an individual rather than any behavior he exhibits.

(The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, DSM-IV,), is a classification system of abnormal behaviors which aids psychologists and other mental health professionals in diagnosing and treating mental disorders. DSM-IV includes the major categories of abnormal behavior which are anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorders and phobias; affective disorders, which are disturbances of mood such as depression; schizophrenic disorders, which are characterized by major disturbances in personality and distortion of reality; and various personality disorders.

While psychologists use similar criteria to diagnose abnormal behavior, their perspectives in understanding and treating related disorders vary greatly. For instance, a psychologist with a psychoanalytic approach would explain depression as a reaction to loss, worsened by anger turned inward. A behavioral psychologist would assume a lack of positive reinforcement to be a significant cause in the disease. A cognitive theorist would focus on the negative thought patterns and attitudes of an individual in contributing to his depression. And a psychologist with a biological perspective would consider a chemical imbalance in the nervous system of a depressed individual to be responsible for his disorder. Many studies have shown that a number of these factors may come into play in the life of an individual suffering from a mental disorder characterized by abnormal behavior.

Before we can write about specific behavioral disorders, we must define 'abnormal'. And what is normal behavior?

The following criteria are used to determine whether a persons behavior is abnormal or not:

Deviation from statistical norms; the word abnormal means 'away from the norm'. Many population facts are measured such as height, weight and intelligence. Most of the people fall within the middle range of intelligence, but a few are abnormally stupid. But according to this definition, a person who is extremely intelligent would be classified as abnormal. Thus in defining abnormal behavior we must consider more.

Deviation from social norms; every vulture has certain standards for acceptable behavior; behavior that deviates from that standard is considered to be abnormal behavior. But those standards can change with time and vary from one society to another.

Maladaptiveness of behavior; this third criterium is how the behavior affects the well-being of the individual and/or social group. Examples are a man who attempts suicide, an alcoholic who drinks so heavily that he or she cannot keep a job or a paranoid individual who tries to assasinate national leaders.

Personal distress; the fourth criterium considers abnormality in terms of the individual's subjective feelings, personal distress, rather than his behavior. Most people diagnosed as 'mentally ill' feel miserable, anxious, depressed and may suffer from insomnia.

In the type of abnormality called neurosis, personal distress may be the only symptom, because the individual's behavior seems normal.

None of these definitions provides a complete description of abnormal behavior. The legal definition of abnormality declares a person insane when he is not able to judge between right and wrong, but this criterium is not used by psychologists. In this paper, I will try to explain what we the society views as abnormal behavior.

Every human group lives by a set of norms-rules that tell us what it is "right" and "wrong" to do, and when and where and with whom. Such rules circumscribe every aspect of our existence, from our most far-reaching decisions to our most prosaic daily routines.

Consider, for example, the matter of how close we stand or sit to a person we are talking to. This is something that is taken for granted by people within a society, but it differs widely among societies. In North America, when two people who do not know one another well are conversing, they will stand about 3 feet apart, but in South America they stand much closer, and in Asia, much farther apart. In one study, Japanese, American, and Venezuelan students were asked to have a five-minute conversation with a stranger of the same sex and nationality. The Japanese sat about 40 inches apart; the Americans, 35 inches; the Venezuelans, 32 inches (Sussman & Rosenfeld, 1982). Arabs come even closer than South Americans. According to Edward Hall (1976), the primary investigator of this subject of "personal space":

In the Arab world, you do not hold a lien on the ground underfoot. When standing on a street corner, an Arab may shove you aside if he wants to be where you are. This puts the average territorial American or German under great stress.....Years ago, American women in Beirut had to give up using streetcars. Their bodies were the property of all men within reach. What was happening is even reflected in the language. The Arabs have no word for trespass.

So the definition of personal space is a norm which differs from culture to culture. People who stand too close to us may seem to us pushy; people who stand too far away may seem cold. And while we may shrug off such social oddities, psychological professionals do not. (In a marriage counselor’s office, how close a couple sit to one another will be a potentially importand observation.) In other words, norm violation within one’s culture tends to be viewed, in varying degrees, as abnormal.

Norms, however, are not the only standard for defining abnormal behavior. Other criteria are statistical rarity, personal discomfort, maladaptive behavior, and deviation from an ideal state.

From a statistical point of view, abnormality is any substantial deviation from a statistically calculated average. Those who fall within the "golden mean"-those, in short, who do what most other people do-are normal, while those whose behavior differs from that of the majority are abnormal.

Another criterion for defining abnormality is personal discomfort. If people are content with their lives, then their lives are of no concern to the mental health establishment. If, on the other hand, they are distressed over their thoughts or behavior-then they require treatment.

A fourth criterion for defining a behavior as abnormal is whether it is maladaptive. Here the question is whether the person, given that behavior pattern, is able to meet the demands of his or her life-hold down a job, deal with friends and family, pay the bills on time, and the like. If not, the apttern is abnormal. This standard overlaps somewhat wit that of norm violation. After all, many norms are rules for adapting our behavior to ur own and our society’s requirements. (To arrive for work drunk is to violate a norm; it is also maladaptive, in that it may get you fired.) At the same time, the maladaptiveness standard is unique in that it concentrates on the practical matter of getting through life with some measure of success. If the man with the fear of flying had a job that required travel, he would be seriously inconvenienced, and his behavior could be considered maladaptive.

Several psychological theories describe an ideally well-adjusted personality, any deviation from which is interpreted as abnormal to a greater or lesser degree. Since the ideal is difficult to achieve, most people are seen as being poorly adjusted at least part of the time. One may strive to achieve the ideal, but one seldom makes it.

The questions raised by these different criteria for defining abnormality can be summarized as one question: Should our standard be facts, (such as statistical rarity or a clearly dysfunctional behavior) like failure to eat, or should it be values, like adaptation or adherence to norms? Many professionals feel that the question cannot be decided one way or the other, but that the definition of mental disorder must rest on both facts and values. Jerome Wakefield (1992), has proposed that mental disorder lies on the boundary between the given natural world and the constructed social world; a disorder exists when the failure of a person’s internal mechanisms to perform their functions as designed by nature impinges harmfully on the person’s well-being as defined by social values.

People diagnosed as schizophrenic, for example, often cannot think or speak coherently; their internal mechanisms, in Wakefield’s terms, are failing to perform "their functions as designed by nature." And these disabilities in turn impinge on their "well-being as defined by social values"-for instance, their ability to hold down a job or raise children. Much professional dispute surrounds the definition of abnormal behavior, it should be kept in mind that most societies identify the same categories of behavior as indicative of mental disorder. As W. B. Maher and Maher (1985) point out, there are four basic categories:

1. Behavior that is harmful to the self or that is harmful to others without serving the interests of the self.

2. Poor reality contact-for example, beliefs that most people do not hold or sensory perceptions of things that most people do not perceive.

3. Emotional reactions inappropriate to the person’s situation.

4. Erratic behavior-that is, behavior that shifts unpredictably.

Which actions fall into these categories depends, again, on the society’s definitions of what is normal and appropriate, but these are kinds of deviations that most people, worldwide, consider possible signs of mental disorder.

According to Sigmund Freud, (1856-1939), human beings are just mechanical creatures, whom he views as prisoners of primitive instincts and powers, which we can barely control. He states that our purpose is to control these instincts and powers.

Whatever the explanation of abnormal behavior, most societies feel that something must be done about such behavior. How do human groups arrive at a way of treating the deviant in their midst?

This process depends on many factors. One is the structure and nature of the society. In a small, traditional community, where deviant persons can be looked after, they may remain at home, and their odd ways will be seen as a problem for the family rather than for the society. Typically, they will be prayed over, relieved of responsibilities, and treated with mixed kindness and ridicule. A large technological society, on the other hand, will tend to isolate deviants so as to prevent them from disrupting the functioning of the family an the community.

A second factor influencing the treatment of abnormal behavior, or at least the objective of such treatment, is the criterion by which it is identified. The standard of normality against which abnormality is defined-adherence to norms, personal satisfaction, adequate "coping"-will be the goal of treatment.

The specific treatment procedures typically follow from the society’s explanation of abnormal behavior. If, as has been the case in some societies, bizarre behavior is interpreted as resulting from possession by evil spirits, then the logical treatment is to draw out such spirits-by means of prayer, special baths, special potions, or whatever. If, in keeping with the medical model, abnormal behavior is assumed to be the result of organic pathology, then the appropriate treatment is medical intervention-by means of drugs, hospitalization, or perhaps even surgery. If abnormal behavior is interpreted according to psychological theories, it will be treated via psychological therapies. Many psychological professionals today feel that whatever its ultimate cause-if indeed ultimate causes can be found-abnormal behavior involves important psychological and biological components. Accordingly, in recent years there has been increased interest in multimodal treatments, combining tw!

o or more kinds of therapy, for example, "talk" psychotherapy and drugs.

In conclusion, how abnormal behaviors are defined, explained, and treated in our society is the subject of this paper. Our modern approaches are not new, however, they are the result of centuries of trial and error. Society’s viewpoints on normality will always be viewed against what we call acceptable and unacceptable behavior.



1). The Diagnostic and Statisical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, DSM-IV

2). Fitzgerald & Hesson-McInnis 1989

3). Edward Hall(1976)

4). Jerome Wakefield (1992) 2nd edition

5). W.B. Maher and Maher (1985)

6). Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

7). Doley’s M.D. (1989

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