Definitions of abnormality

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  • Definitions of Abnormality
    • Deviation from social norms
      • 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
        • 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.
        • E.g. is the violation rude, eccentric, abnormal or criminal?
      • Strength
        • This defintion gives a social dimension to the idea of abnormality, which offers an alternative to the 'sick in the head' individual.
      • Limitations
        • Social norms can vary from culture to culture. This means that what is considered normal in one culture may be considered abnormal in another. This definition of abnormality is an example of cultural relativism.
        • Norms can vary over time. This means that behaviour that would have been defined as abnormal in one era is no longer defined as abnormal in another.
    • Failure to Function Adequately
      • Failure to function adequately (FFA) refers to abnormality that prevent the person from carrying out the range of behaviours that society would expect from them,
        • such as getting out of bed each day, holding down a job, and conducting successful relationships etc.
      • Rosenhan & Seligman suggested seven criteria that are typical of FFA.
        • These include personal distress (e.g. anxiety or depression), unpredictably (displaying unexpected behaviours and loss of control) and irrationality among others. The more features of personal dysfunction a person has the more they are considered abnormal.
      • To assess how well individuals cope with everyday life, clinician use the Global Assessment of Functioning Scale (GAF), which rates their level of social, occupational and psychological functioning.
      • Strengths
        • The definition provides a practical checklist of seven criteria individuals can use to check their level of abnormality.
        • It matches the sufferers' perceptions. As most people seeking clinical help believe that they are suffering from psychological problems that interfere with the ability to function properly, it supports the definition.
      • Limitations
        • FFA might not be linked to abnormality but to other factors. Failure to keep a job may be due to the economic situation not to psychopathology.
        • FFA is context dependent; not eating can be seen as failing to function adequately but prisoners on hunger strikes making a protest can be seen in a different light.
        • Cultural relativism is one limitation; what may be seen as functioning adequately in one culture may not be adequate in another. This is likely to result in different diagnoses in different cultures.
    • Deviation from Ideal Mental Health
      • Jahoda suggested six criteria necessary for ideal mental health. An absence of any of these characteristics indicate individuals as being abnormal, in other words displaying deviation from ideal mental health.
        • Resistance to stress: Having effective coping strategies and being able to cope with everyday anxiety provoking situations.
        • Growth, development or self-actualisation: Experiencing personal growth and becoming everything one is capable of becoming.
        • High self-esteem and a strong sense of identity: Having self-respect and a positive self-concept.
        • Autonomy: Being independent, self-reliant and being able to make personal decisions.
        • Accurate perception of reality: Having an objective and realistic view of the world.
      • Limitations
        • Difficulty of meeting all criteria, very few people would be able to do so and this suggests that very few people are psychologically healthy.
        • Cultural relativism: hese ideas are culture-bound, based on a Western idea of ideal mental health, and should not be used to judge other cultures.
    • 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.
      • 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.
      • strengths
        • This definition can provide an objective way, based on data, to define abnormality if an agreed cut-off point can be identified.
      • Limitations
        • This definition fails to distinguish between desirable and undesirable behavior.
        • 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.


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