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Definitions of Abnormality

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Definitions of Abnormality

Abnormal behaviour is described as behaviour that is statistically infrequent, deviates from social norms, prevents proper function, or deviates from ideal mental health.

There is great debate about how we should define abnormal behaviour. Who gets to decide what is normal? What happens if our view of 'normal' changes over time and between cultures? To explore this, we will look at and evaluate some of the different ways through which abnormality is defined.

Statistical Infrequency

Statistical infrequency is a mathematical approach that quantifies behaviour.

Using IQ as a measure of intelligence is an example of the statistical infrequency approach.

Statistical infrequency aims to find a mean average of behaviour amongst the population. According to statistical infrequency:

  • Behaviour is normal if it falls within this mean average.

  • Behaviour is abnormal if it deviates from this mean average, meaning it is statistically rare.

Standard deviation can inform us how far someone's behaviour deviates from the mean average, that is, how abnormal their behaviour is.

A normal distribution curve can be generated if the population shares a common behaviour. This means that most people within the population will be on or near the mean average, but if an individual is outside of the normal distribution, they will be defined as abnormal.

Definitions of abnormality [+] statistical infrequency, normal distribution curve [+] StudySmarterNormal distribution curve, Yzabelle Bostyn, StudySmarter Originals

When do people buy Christmas presents? If we illustrated the results of this question on a normal distribution curve:

  • Buying presents around December would likely be shown within the mean (normal behaviour), and anything outside of this would be considered abnormal.
  • Buying presents in October would deviate slightly from the norm, meaning it would be one or two standard deviations away from the norm.
  • Buying presents in July would deviate greatly from the norm, meaning it would be two or more standard deviations away from the norm.

Strengths and weaknesses of statistical infrequency

Let's take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of statistical infrequency.

Strengths

  • Mathematical approach: the mathematical nature of statistical infrequency makes it a very clear, objective definition of abnormality.

  • Allows for easy comparison: quantifying behaviour makes it easy to compare and contrast normality and abnormality.

  • Population validity: statistical infrequency takes the whole picture into account and gives a view of abnormalities within an entire population.

Weaknesses

  • Fails to recognise desirable behaviour: statistical infrequency defines desirable behaviour such as high IQ as abnormal. This means that a positive characteristic such as high intelligence may be classed as a disorder.

  • Cultural bias: what is considered normal in one culture may be abnormal in another.

    In Japan, tattoos are very rare, whereas, in the UK, one in three adults have one. Therefore, a behaviour considered abnormal in Japan is much more accepted in the UK. This example highlights that statistical definitions of normality are culturally dependent and, therefore, unreliable.

  • Abnormality can occur frequently: 1 in 4 people experience a mental health issue every year. Therefore, given the high frequency of these issues, it may not be helpful to define everyone who suffers from them as abnormal.

Deviation from social norms

The deviation from social norms approach defines abnormality as behaviours that defy or disregard the social expectations of acceptable ways to behave in a given society.

Unlike the statistical infrequency approach, which defines normality and abnormality through quantitative research results, the deviation from the social norms approach defines normality and abnormality by the norms accepted by social groups. Some social norms are unspoken but widely accepted, such as queuing in shops. Others are both accepted and enforced by the legal system. These norms can also be context-dependent; for instance, if you are eating a burger, it is normal to eat with your hands, but if you are eating soup, that would be considered abnormal.

Strengths and weaknesses of deviation from social norms

The strengths and weaknesses of deviation from social norms are as follows:

Strengths

  • Self-help and identification: if healthy behavior is accepted as the societal norm, a person with a mental disorder or their close friends will be able to recognize that they are behaving abnormally and seek help.

Weaknesses

  • Low temporal validity: societal norms change over time.

    In the past, homosexuality was considered abnormal and, as such, defined as a mental disorder. Now, homosexuality is considered socially acceptable and normal by many societies.

    Therefore, social norms are not a valid measure of abnormality over time.

  • Cultural bias: what is normal in some cultures may be considered abnormal in another.

    In the UK, homosexuality is considered socially acceptable and normal by the majority of the UK, but, in places such as Nigeria, it is considered abnormal and is illegal.

    As such, this definition of abnormality is not cross-cultural.

  • Context-dependent: behaviour that is considered normal in some contexts is considered abnormal in others, meaning that this definition of abnormality is not stable.

    Wearing a bikini is viewed as normal at the beach but abnormal in a restaurant.

Failure to function adequately

Failure to function adequately defines abnormality as being unable to cope with the demands of everyday life, for example, maintaining personal hygiene, eating, and going to work. For instance, people with depression often struggle to get out of bed to go to work or engage in social activities. This is a sign of abnormality and may cause distress to them and their loved ones.

Definitions of abnormality [+] failure to function adequately [+] StudySmarterRain cloud indicating depressive feelings, Yzabelle Bostyn, StudySmarter Originals

Rosenhan and Seligman (1989) suggested some features to help define failure to function adequately:

  • Observer discomfort: behaviour may cause discomfort or distress to the observer.

  • Irrationality: the individual may try to rationalise irrational behaviour.

  • Maladaptive behaviours: the individual may be unable to achieve their goals.

  • Unpredictability: the individual may display unpredictable behaviours which signal a lack of control.

  • Personal distress: the individual may be suffering or in distress.

Strengths and weaknesses of failure to function adequately

Let's evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of failure to function adequately.

Strengths

  • Subjective: this definition is subjective as it comes from the perspective of the person who is mentally ill or their loved ones. This means that a failure to function adequately approach can encourage someone with a mental illness or their loved ones to seek help even if the mentally ill person's behaviour may appear 'normal' to others.

Weaknesses

  • Cultural bias: for an adult, the failure to get out of bed may be considered a worrying sign of depression, however, in teenagers, this may be seen as normal. This is only one example of how this definition of abnormality is dependent on many cultural factors, such as the need to work.

  • Dysfunction is not always observable: for instance, psychopaths can cause great harm and are mentally ill but can appear completely normal. Consider Harold Shipman, the English doctor who killed over 200 patients and was able to get away with it because he appeared 'normal'.

Deviation from ideal mental health

This definition of abnormality views mental health similarly to physical health by looking for signs of a deviation from normal functioning and wellbeing.

Jahoda (1958) provided a list of characteristics that, if a person deviated from, they would be considered abnormal:

  • Positive attitude towards oneself: high self-esteem and a strong personal identity

  • Autonomy: independence and self-reliance

  • Resisting stress: being able to cope with stress and everyday anxiety

  • Environmental mastery: being able to meet the ever-changing demands of life

  • Self-actualization: growing and working towards your potential

  • Viewpoint: accurate perception of reality

Strengths and weaknesses of deviation from ideal mental health

The strengths and weaknesses of deviation from ideal mental health are as follows:

Strengths

  • Puts the individual first: this definition prioritises the individual's needs and health.

Weaknesses

  • Unrealistic: the criteria for normality are demanding and unrealistic. According to Jahoda's definition, most people would be classed as abnormal.

  • Western-centric: this definition uses western ideas regarding mental health as a universal judgment. This is culturally biased as it assumes western views on mental health are shared throughout the world.

  • Vague: Jahoda's criteria are vague and subjective; things like self-esteem or personal growth cannot be measured, meaning it would be down to personal opinion if a person had a mental health condition or not.

Definitions of Abnormality - Key takeaways

  • Psychopathology is the scientific study of mental illnesses.

  • There are many different approaches to defining a person as 'mentally ill'.

  • Mathematical approaches such as statistical infrequency quantify behaviour and abnormality. Although this makes them objective, it also risks claiming positive behaviours are abnormal.

  • Social approaches such as deviation from social norms, failure to function adequately and deviation from ideal mental health, whilst more holistic and individualistic, are often culturally dependent and therefore not a neutral approach to mental health.

  • No definition of psychopathology is without issue. Therefore, these definitions should be used together to create a holistic view of mental illness.

Frequently Asked Questions about Definitions of Abnormality

Abnormal behavior can be defined in numerous ways. For instance, it might be behaviour that deviates from statistical norms or social norms.  

Culture can shape definitions of abnormal behaviour as some behaviours considered normal in some cultures might not be so in others. 

There are 22 possible evaluation points for definitions of abnormality. 

No single psychologist came up with this definition. 

There is more than one definition of abnormality because some things may not be defined as abnormal under a single definition. 

Final Definitions of Abnormality Quiz

Question

What is psychopathology?

Show answer

Answer

Psychopathology is the study of mental disorders such as depression, OCD, and anxiety.

Show question

Question

What is meant by abnormal behaviour?

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Answer

Abnormal behaviour is that which is statistically infrequent, deviates from social norms, prevents proper function, or deviates from ideal mental health.

Show question

Question

What is statistical infrequency? 


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Answer

 Statistical infrequency is a definition of abnormality which states that anyone outside the mean in a given population is abnormal.

Show question

Question

What is deviation from social norms?

Show answer

Answer

Deviation from social norms defines abnormality as behaviors that defy or disregard the social expectations of acceptable ways to behave in a given society.

Show question

Question

What is failure to function adequately? 


Show answer

Answer

This is a definition of abnormality which states that anyone who fails to meet the demands of everyday life is abnormal.

Show question

Question

What is deviation from ideal mental health?


Show answer

Answer

A definition of abnormality that states that if a person deviates from ideal mental health (characterized by self-actualization, autonomy and positivity) they are abnormal.

Show question

Question

Why might definitions of abnormality be culturally biased? 

Show answer

Answer

Because some things which are considered abnormal in some societies may not be in others 

Show question

Question

Jahoda (1958) provided a list of characteristics that, if a person deviated from, they would be considered abnormal, what were these?


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Answer

  • Positive attitude towards oneself: high self-esteem and a strong personal identity. 

  • Autonomy: independence and self-reliance

  • Resisting stress: being able to cope with stress and everyday anxiety

  • Environmental mastery: being able to meet the ever-changing demands of life

  • Self-actualization: growing and working towards your potential

Show question

Question

Who provided a list of characteristics to define deviation from ideal mental health? 

Show answer

Answer

Jahoda (1958)

Show question

Question

How does failure to function adequately define abnormality? 

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Answer

Failure to function adequately defines abnormality as being unable to cope with the demands of everyday life

Show question

Question

Give an example of a person with a mental illness who would NOT be defined as abnormal through failure to function adequately. 

Show answer

Answer

Harold Shipman, the English doctor who killed over 200 patients and was able to get away with it because he appeared 'normal'.

Show question

Question

What is a strength of failure to function adequately as a definition of abnormality?

Show answer

Answer

It is subjective as it comes from the perspective of the sufferers or their loved ones, meaning it can encourage them to seek help even if their behaviour may appear 'normal' to others.  

Show question

Question

Outline Rosenhal's characteristics to define failure to function adequately as a definition of abnormality 

Show answer

Answer

  • Observer discomfort: behaviour may cause discomfort or distress to the observer. 

  • Irrationality: the individual may try to rationalise irrational behaviour. 

  • Maladaptive behaviours: the individual may be unable to achieve their goals. 

  • Unpredictability: the individual may display unpredictable behaviours which signal a lack of control.

  • Personal distress: the individual may be suffering or in distress. 

Show question

Question

What are the weaknesses of deviation from social norms as a definition of abnormality?

Show answer

Answer

  • Low temporal validity: societal norms change over time. Therefore, social norms are not a valid measure of abnormality over time.
  • Cultural bias:  what is normal in some cultures may be considered abnormal in another. As such, this definition of abnormality is not cross-cultural. 
  • Context-dependent: behaviour that is considered normal in some contexts is considered abnormal in others, meaning that this definition of abnormality is not stable.

Show question

Question

What is failure to function adequately? 

Show answer

Answer

Defines abnormality as being unable to cope with the demands of everyday life

Show question

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