Abnormal Psychology - Definitions of abnormality

Deviation from social norms
Deviation from ideal mental health
Failure to function adequately

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  • Created by: Aliison
  • Created on: 06-06-10 10:31

Deviation from social norms

Every society has its own sets of rules/codes of conduct, some are more serious and if you break them you are breaking the law (eg stealing) others are less serious (eg you don't sit next to someone on a bus if there are lots of other empty seats) These become social norms.
If someone breaks these then we may say they are abnormal? It is an everyday way of identifying that someone may have a psychological disorder (eg excessive washing of hands, could be some one who may have or is developing OCD)


Eccentric of abnormal? Deviation from social norms might just mean that they are eccentric not abnormal. They might just have highly individualised ways of interacting with the world.

Role of context, a lot of our behaviour is context specific it seems bizarre when out of context - there is a right time and place for it. For example jumping, screaming and clapping would be considered normal at a football match but at a classical music concert it would be considered abnormal.

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AO2's continued

Change over time - Beliefs about what is normal behaviour change over time. For example in early parts of the 20th century it would be considered immoral and abnormal to have a child outside of marriage. Women with babies outside of marriage could have them taken away for adoption, or themselves be placed in a mental institution. Also attitudes to homosexuality have changed before the 1960's male homosexuality was illegal.

Abnormal or criminal? Not all criminals have a underlying psychological disorder, but often for extreme crimes such as **** or murder we want to label them with a psychological disorder so that they appear different to us.

Cultural issues - Different things are considered acceptable in different cultures. For example a man who lived on his own in a cave to us may be considered abnormal, whereas in india he would be a holy man. Also is African and Indian cultures it is seen to be normal to talk to people after they have recently died.

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Deviation from ideal mental health

Jahoda (1958) came up with 6 criteria that he suggested define idea mental health. It could be argued that anyone who does not fulfil all these critera might be at risk of a psychological disorder.

  • Positive attitudes to self - the need to like and accept yourself as who you are, you may not be perfect but you are okay.
  • Self actualisation of one's potential - Maslow (1968) that we all have potential to excel is some area
  • Resistance to stress - The individual has developed good coping strategies
  • Personal autonomy - The person is self reliant and doesn't depend on other and they can make their own decisions.
  • Accurate perception of reality - being able to see themselves and the world in a realistic way, not overly optimistic or pessimistic
  • Adapting to the environment - being competent in all areas of life, home, work, leisure. Also being flexible and being able to adjust to change
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  • The concept of self actualisation is difficult as people are not always aware of what their full potential is.
  • Possible benefits of stress, sometimes stress can be positive and lead to motivation for example actors sometimes say they give their best performances when they have experienced some anxitey.
  • Cultural issues, Jahoda's ideas of mental health are based on western ideals. This may not work in some cultures, such as in many eastern cultures your own wishes come second to those of their family. To pursue your own goals outside the family would be seen as selfish.
  • Also it could be argued that for an indiviual to fulfil and maintain all 6 of the critera would be very difficult. Functioning at such a highlevel constantly would be very hard and some people might say that the criteria is unrealistic, they would argue that they are more ideals that we can strive for but never reach.
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Failure to function adequately

People with psychological disorders often find that they cannot cope as well with their daily activities. This is taken into account when diagnosis of mental health is made. One measure that is used is the Global Assesment of Functioning Scale (GAF). However a low score on this would not be enough to diagnose a mental health disorder. A score above 70 is generally good.

  • 80-71 If symptoms are present, they are transient and expectable reactions to psychosocial stressors (e.g., difficulty concentrating after family argument); no more than slight impairment in social, occupational, or school functioning (e.g., temporarily falling behind in schoolwork).
  • 40-31 Some impairment in reality testing or communication (e.g., speech is at times illogical, obscure, or irrelevant) OR major impairment in several areas, such as work or school, family relations, judgment, thinking, or mood (e.g., depressed man avoids friends, neglects family, and is unable to work; child frequently beats up younger children, is defiant at home, and is failing at school).
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  • This is not the whole picture, it isn't a true definition just a way of showing how the person's behaviour impacts on daily life. For example some people deliberatly deprive themselves of the comforts of everyday life as a form of protest eg going on hunger strike.
  • Also there are exceptions, for example a student experiencing anxiety about a forthcoming exam may behave uncharacteristically, however this wouldn not be considered abnormal behaviour.
  • Cultural issues, we need to consider that issues such as racism and discrimination may be effecing minority groups ability to function. For example they might have trouble with unemployment and difficult living conditions may lead to difficulty to function in every day life.
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