More coursework: 1 - A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I - J | K - L | M | N - O | P - S | T | U - Y

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

About this resource

This coursework was submitted to us by a student in order to help you with your studies.

Search our content:

  • Download this page
  • Print this page
  • Search again

  • Word count:

    This page has approximately words.



    If you use part of this page in your own work, you need to provide a citation, as follows:

    Essay UK, Abnormal Behavior. Available from: <> [27-05-20].

    More information:

    If you are the original author of this content and no longer wish to have it published on our website then please click on the link below to request removal: