Definitions of Abnormality

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 different ways abnormality is defined.

Definitions of Abnormality Definitions of Abnormality

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Contents
Table of contents

    Definitions of Abnormality, Sensitivity banner warning that the explanation will cover sensitive topics, StudySmarter

    • We will start by covering the definitions of abnormality: psychology.
    • Then, we will delve into the statistical infrequency definition of abnormality and evaluate the definition too.
    • After, we will explore the deviation from the social norm's definition of abnormality and evaluate this.
    • Moving on, we will learn and evaluate failure to function adequately as a definition of abnormality.
    • Finally, we will explore and evaluate the deviation from the ideal mental health definition of abnormality.

    Definition of Abnormality Psychology

    Abnormality is not a culturally-relative word, meaning what one country deems as abnormal behaviour may not be the case for another culture. In addition, it is not time-relevant.

    100 or so years ago, if a man were wearing a dress, people would deem this as abnormal behaviour, but nowadays, it is more accepted as 'normal behaviour'.

    But what is abnormality?

    Abnormality is a discipline in psychology that investigates people who are 'abnormal, atypical or different' from the majority of society members.

    These individuals tend to stick out and deviate from the norms of society.

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

    Statistical Infrequency Definition of Abnormality

    A 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 the mean average.

    • Behaviour is abnormal if it deviates from the 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 the normal distribution, they will be 'defined as abnormal'.

    Nowadays, the individual may be tested for developmental illnesses related to IQ, such as Autism.

    Definitions of abnormality, Normal distribution graph illustrating abnormal behaviour deviations, StudySmarterFig. 1. Normal distribution graphs can be applied to illustrate and measure statistical infrequency.

    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 from the norm.
    • Buying presents in July would deviate significantly from the norm, meaning it would be two or more standard deviations away from the norm.

    Evaluate Statistical Infrequency as a Definition of Abnormality

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

    The strengths are as follows:

    • 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.

    On the other hand, the weaknesses are as follows:

    • 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 has one. Therefore, behaviour considered abnormal in Japan is much more accepted in the UK. This example highlights that statistical definitions of normality are culturally dependent and unreliable.

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

    • Reductionist: Assumes mental health is black-and-white, i.e. deviations from the norm infer abnormal behaviour, but this doesn't account for the fact that some illnesses are on a spectrum.

    Deviation from Social Norms Definition of Abnormality

    Deviations from social norms are another tool used to define and identify abnormal behaviour.

    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, such as queuing in shops, are unspoken but widely accepted. Others are both accepted and enforced by the legal system. These norms can also be context-dependent.

    For instance, eating a burger is customary to eat with your hands, but eating soup would be considered abnormal if you ate it with your hands.

    Evaluate Deviation from Social Norms as a Definition of Abnormality

    The strengths of deviation from social norms are as follows:

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

    Whereas the weaknesses are as follows:

    • 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 others.

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

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

    • Context-dependent: behaviour 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 as a Definition of Abnormality

    Failure to function adequately defines abnormality as the inability to cope with everyday demands.

    For example, the individual cannot maintain personal hygiene, eat, and go to work. For instance, people with depression often struggle to get out of bed to go to work or engage in social activities.

    These examples are a sign of abnormality and may cause distress to them and their loved ones.

    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.

    Evaluate Failure to Function Adequately as a Definition of Abnormality

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

    The strengths are as follows:

    • 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.

    On the other hand, the weaknesses are:

    • 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 typical. This is only one example of how this definition of abnormality depends 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 could get away with it because he appeared 'normal'.

    Deviation from Ideal Mental Health Definition of Abnormality

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

    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-actualisation: growing and working towards your potential

    • Viewpoint: accurate perception of reality

    Evaluate Deviation from Ideal Mental Health as a Definition of Abnormality

    The strength of this definition is:

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

    But, its weaknesses are:

    • 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 worldwide.

    • 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 has a mental health condition or not.

    Definitions of Abnormality - Key takeaways

    • The definition of abnormality psychology is a discipline in psychology that investigates people who are 'abnormal, atypical or different' from the majority of society members.

    • The statistical infrequency definition of abnormality takes a mathematical approach to understanding and measuring abnormal behaviour.

    • The deviation from the social norm's definition of abnormality indicates behaviours that defy or disregard the social expectations of acceptable ways to behave in a given society are abnormal.

    • The deviation from the ideal mental health definition of abnormality views mental health similarly to physical health by looking for signs of a deviation from normal functioning and well-being.

    • To evaluate failure to function adequately as a definition of abnormality, we need to look at its strength and weaknesses. Each definition has strengths and weaknesses, so these definitions should be used together to create a holistic view of mental illness.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Definitions of Abnormality

    What is the definition of abnormal?

    The definition of abnormality psychology is a discipline in psychology that investigates people who are 'abnormal, atypical or different' from the majority of society members. 

    How is culture related to the definition of abnormal behavior?

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

    How many evaluation points for psychology definitions of abnormality?

    To evaluate failure to function adequately as a definition of abnormality, we need to look at its strength and weaknesses. Each definition has strengths and weaknesses, so these definitions should be used together to create a holistic view of mental illness. 

    Who came up with the definition of abnormality statistical infrequency?

    The statistical infrequency tool was previously used to measure data but has since been applied to understand abnormal psychology. 

    Why is there more than one definition of abnormality?

    Each definition has strengths and weaknesses, so these definitions should be used together to create a holistic view of mental illness. 

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