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Definitions Of Abnormality Essay About Myself

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.

PDF Downloads

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?

PowerPoint Downloads

Abnormal Psychology Introduction

Abnormal Psychology Therapies

Introduction to Abnormal Behavior

Perspectives on Aetiology and  Treatment

Understanding Schizophrenia

Publications Related to Abnormal Behavior

Probably no aspect of behavior is more challenging to understand than psychopathology--the study of mental disorders. In everyday life, people often talk about "mental illness", a term which echoes the medical background of many mental health practictioners. This medical model (embraced by the Biological approach) assumes that the cause of psychopathology is to be found in physical malfunctions of the brain and nervous system. However, not all approaches agree that all disorders have purely physical causes; indeed, the other approaches generally argue that learning often contributes to behavioral problems (such as phobias and stress). In order to avoid prejudging the cause of observed problems, the term "abnormal behavior" is preferable to terms like "mental illness".

Names are important when it comes to discussing abnormal behavior, because in everyday life, the use of terms related to pathology can often have negative social effects, called stigmatizing. Even among professionals, there is a tendency to equate the problem with the person, so that one speaks of "a schizophrenic" rather than "a person with schizophrenia". (If this distinction seems petty, try substituting "flu" for "schizophrenia"--does it seem reasonable to equate the person with that illness?) Issues like this demonstrate that the social dimension of how we respond to abnormal behavior is important, and not easily separable from the behavior itself.

The reality is that public understanding of abnormal behavior is fairly limited. While it has improved since the days of early asylums like Bedlam (in London) and Bicetre (near Paris), most people tend to be wary or even frightened when they encounter behavior which seems very atypical. This is most obvious when considering disorders like schizophrenia, where the individual may experience hallucinations and severe delusions, but it is also true that most people have little understanding of mood disorders like depression, or the real nature of drug addiction, or many other problems described as "abnormal behavior". In some respects, the Internet is helping, by making it easier for people to access information about both health and pathology, but the reality is that right now we still don't have all the answers when it comes to understanding and treating abnormal behavior.


Internet Mental Health--One of the biggest and best Web sites for general information about many aspects of mental health and abnormal behavior.

NIMH Mental Health Topics--Link for consumer-oriented portion of web site for U.S. government institute which funds mental health research; main site also includes material for professionals.

PsychNet-UK--British site which is roughly UK equivalent of Internet Mental Health; provides resources and links on various aspects of abnormal behavior.

Canadian Mental Health Association--National non-profit association with a focus on community support and enhancing understanding of mental health issues and disorders.

Mental Health Resources--Provides information on a variety of mental disorders and mental health issues; part of ClinicalPsychology.Net website.

Mental Health Basics--Provides links to a variety of articles related to mental health and disorders; part of Healthline.com website.

Psychiatric Drug Facts--Web site created by Dr. Peter Breggin, a critic of many standard ideas about abnormal behavior, especially the medical model and the use of drugs and electroshock as treatments. Like many critics, his views can sometimes seem extreme, but often raise interesting issues.

On Being Sane In Insane Places--online version of David Rosenhan's controversial "experiential study" of diagnosis, originally published in Science in 1973; for a commentary, relating Rosenhan's study to the problem of stigmatization of those with mental disorders, see Constructing Difference: Social Deviance, by Newman and Smith.

If one seeks to understand abnormal behavior, it is useful to start with a definition of what is "abnormal". As the text notes, criteria have changed over time--incidents like the Salem Witch Trials in the 1700's reflected a view that interpreted pathology in terms of demonic possession. (It now appears the real cause was poisoning by a fungus from spoiled grain, which led to a panic by the community in response to strange behavior by those poisoned.) Today, diagnostic criteria try to consider behavior in terms of the person's ability to function and reported quality of life (i.e., maladaptiveness and suffering). The use of diagnostic categories, based primarily on symptoms, is an attempt to group together similar cases, in much the way that early botanists categorized similar plants. (In both cases, the assumption is that categorizing is the first step towards a deeper understanding.) The most widely used systems for diagnostic classification are Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM_IV) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

Diagnosis, of course, is normally seen as the first step to understanding the cause (aetiology) of the abnormal behavior, and therefore to identifying an appropriate treatment. While this process has proven very successful in dealing with communicable diseases like influenza and measles, it has had less overall success in dealing with abnormal behavior. In part, this reflects theoretical disagreements among the five approaches about aetiology, and  therefore about how best to treat a problem. A second factor which hampers the effectiveness of diagnosis based on symptoms is that similar behaviors may result from different causes. (For example, an elderly person showing delusions may be suffering from paranoia, or may simply have an undiagnosed hearing impairment which leads them to misinterpret the words and actions of others!)

Even the process by which health practitioners (and society) diagnose problems and disorders can pose problems--for example, you are less likely to be accurately diagnosed if the practitioner is from a different cultural or ethnic background than your own. In fairness, the groups that publish the most widely used standards for diagnosis, the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) and the World Health Organization (ICD-9), are aware of the difficulties, and are striving to improve the accuracy and reliability of diagnosis, but the present system is far from perfect.

It is not possible here to discuss all details of diagnosis and treatment, or to discuss the nature of every disorder. (The text provides more information on these topics, of course.) However, the following resources may be useful if you are seeking additional information, either about causes and treatment of abnormal behavior in general, or how specific approaches deal with particular forms of abnormal behavior.


Understanding Mental Health Problems--General information about diagnosis and treatment; part of larger set of resources from National Association for Mental Health, U.K.

DSM-IV Information--Contents page for detailed links about DSM-IV and mental disorders, from PsychNet-UK.

APA Diagnostic Classification--An online version of the DSM-IV-TR manual, from BehaveNet, a site for mental health professionals.

DSM-V Overview: The Future Manual--Official APA commentary on the next version of the DSM.

Ethics of Research on Individuals with Mental Illness--2006 task force report by American Psychiatric Association; part of Psychiatry Online archive of information.

(See also links for NIMH and Internet Mental Health, given in the previous section.)


Genetics of Mental Illness--Lecture notes by Dr. David Curtis, a British psychiatrist and researcher.

The Biology of Mental Disorders--An extensive 1992 report by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment; while much of the specific content is now out-dated, it provides an overview of the issues, and an interesting historical perspective.


Behavioral Therapy--Brief discussion, with links to discussions of some specific techniques; part of Simply Psychology site.

Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies--Formerly the Association of Advancement of Behavior Therapy, an organization for Behaviorist therapists; contains limited direct content, but has links to other organizations and sites.


About Cognitive Therapy--A basic introduction to Cognitively-based approaches to therapy, with related links; part of Mindstreet, a commercial site offering materials for health care professionals created by therapists, including Aaron Beck.

What is CBT?--A very good overview of cognitive behavioral therapy; from the British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies.


American Psychoanalytic Association--Official site for one of the largest psychodynamically-oriented groups; contains a variety of information, including short articles and essays.


What is the Person-centred Approach?--Overview of Rogerian therapy, from British Association for the Person-centered Approach.

A Client-Centered Psychotherapy Practice--Article by Barbara Brodley, a practicing therapist, providing detailed discussion of the Rogerian approach, as well as a transcript of a client-centered therapy session; from the Association for the Development of the Person Centered Approach website, which also contains a variety of related articles.

Of all the forms of abnormal behavior, perhaps no disorder is more challenging than schizophrenia. One of the potentially most disruptive disorders, in terms of affecting the individual's ability to function, it can present symptoms which are disturbing to both the sufferer and others: hallucinations, delusions, confused thought and speech, inappropriate emotions, strange gestures, and so on. (Note that these symptoms do not normally all appear in a single case!) Affecting about 1% of the adult population in both developed and developing nations, it is a complex and challenging disorder.

The word schizophrenia comes from the Greek for "split personality"; it was coined by a doctor named Eugen Bleuler to describe the strange disconnection between thought processes and emotions that is often found in the disorder. However, the literal translation has often been misinterpreted by the general public, thinking it refers to individuals who show more than one personality--a rare condition properly described as multiple personality disorder. Unfortunately, the media often perpetuate this confusion: for example, the recent movie, "Me, Myself, and Irene", which presents Hollywood's version of multiple personality disorder, identifies the main character as suffering from schizophrenia!

As with other disorders, there is an intense debate about what actually causes schizophrenia. There is a variety of research that suggests neurological factors contribute to, if not actually causing, schizophrenia, but no single mechanism has been consistently identified, fuelling debate about its aetiology. (More and more, the evidence is pointing towards several potentiating factors at a physiological level, which then interact with adverse environmental factors to produce schizophrenia. Despite the debate, there is no doubt that today, new medications offer the possibility of alleviating the most severe symptoms, while reducing the side-effects associated with earlier drugs (and which often led to suffers curtailing taking the medication, leading to relapses).

At present, many questions remain--not the least of which is what environmental factors either provoke or alleviate schizophrenia. (One puzzle is that, while incidence rates are consistent across nations, remission rates are higher in developing countries than in Western nations--despite the latter's supposedly better medical systems.) Nonetheless, the following sources will be useful if you wish to learn more about this complex disorder.


General Background

Schizophrenia.com--A major site, intended to assist friends and families of those suffering from schizophrenia, which provides a wide range of material, including first person accounts of what it is like to suffer from schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia--Extensive and well-organized set of material and links; part of Internet Mental Health site.

Schizophrenia--Overview intended for the general public, from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

DSM-IV diagnostic criteria--Provides details of diagnostic criteria in DSM-IV-TR; from BehaveNet.com.

The Experience of Schizophrenia--Site maintained by Ian Chovil of Guelph, Ont., who was first diagnosed as having schizophrenia in 1990; contains both personal reports and a variety of background information and links on schizophrenia.

The Truth About Schizophrenia--Lengthy PDF containing a variety of information about many aspects of schizophrenia, particularly its impact on families; created by the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society.


Legitimating Brain Disease: The Case Against "Mental Illness" --Article arguing for explaining schizophrenia from Biological approach.

Different Genes, Same Risk--NIMH report on study (July, 2012) claiming a link between genes and risk of developing schizophrenia. (Note there have been many similar findings reported, many ultimately disconfirmed; this result awaits confirmation. For a sense of the on-going research, enter "schizophrenia AND gene" in the search box on the NIMH home page.)

Other Approaches

Schizophrenia Without the Psychotropic Drugs--Website devoted to the ideas and research of the late Loren Mosher, a psychiatrist who at one time headed the NIMH Center for Studies of Schizophrenia, and eventually became a critic of the medical model as applied to schizophrenia; includes articles, interviews, and other information.

Psychiatric Times--On-line newsletter, intended primarily for professionals; contains searchable index of back issues (requires free registration).

Journal of Abnormal Psychology--Primary APA journal for area, however, website contains only very recent abstracts and tables of contents.

Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology--As the name suggests, this APA journal has an applied focus; website contains only very recent abstracts and tables of contents.

Archive of Vol. 10 of  Journal of Abnormal Psychology--This e-text version of the 1915-1916 issue provides interesting browsing, as it dates from period when psychoanalysis was gaining attention, and well before antipsychotic drugs were developed; from Project Gutenberg e-text archive.

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