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deviating from social norms

This is one definition of abnormality.

social norm is an unwritten rule which governs how we should behave within a society or situation. Deviation is when we break this rule.

Strengths of this definition;

  • easy and practical way of defining abnormality
  • considers the effect of the behaviour on other people

Weaknesses of this definition;

  • norms change over time
  • there will be cultural differences
  • norms of a society may not be the right behaviour
  • hard to define abnormalities over eccentricities
  • context of the behaviour must be taken into account
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Failure to function adequately

The idea that behaviour is abnormal if it is maladaptive (hinders our survival). Rosenhan and Seligman had seven criteria for judging the presence of abnormality.

  • personal distress (extreme sadness, guilt etc)
  • maladaptive
  • irrationality (wild behaviour with no connection to reality)
  • unpredictability (impulsive, seemingly uncontrollable beahviour)
  • statistical rarity (not the norm)
  • observer discomfort 
  • violation of moral and ideal standards

strengths of this definition; it recognises a person's subjective experience (how they feel) and is practical as it looks at both violation of moral standards and statistical rarity (easier to identify people who need help)

weaknesses of this definition; the extent and context of the personal distress must be taken into account and some of the criteria are very subjective. Irrationality, unpredictability, stat rarity could apply to people who choose to do their own thing but arent causing any harm.

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Deviation from ideal mental health

Jahoda indentified six key criteria for ideal mental health, which if a person wasnt fulfilling they could be classified as abnormal.

  • positive attitude towards self (high self esteem)
  • potential for growth and improvement (self actualisation)
  • autonomy (ability to make your own decisions)
  • environmental mastery (being able to meet demands of any situation)
  • resistance to stress (being able to cope with anxiety provoking situations)
  • accurate perception of reality (objective view of the world)

weaknesses of this definition;

  • cultural relavitism (views based on a western idea of mental health)
  • problems with validity (no one achieves ideal mental health)
  • subjective criteria
  • historical relavitism (mental health criteria has changed over time. e.g. homosexuality used to be a mental illness)
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'On being sane in insane places'

A study undertaken by Rosenhan in 1973 to investigate the problems in defining abnormalities. 

8 sane participants (3 women, 5 men) used fake names and occupations sought admission to different hospitals by claiming to hear voices. Other than this they changed nothing about their personal history or behaviour or circumstances. Once admitted they stopped acting and responded normally to their surroundings and said they were fine. Their tasks were to seek release by convincing staff and observe and record the behaviour of the mentally disordered.

Findings; all participants were admitted and none of the nurses realised they were sane. Some of the patients did realise. Observed very little contact between patients and staff, all interpretation based on the schizophrenic diagnosis. Some verbal and physical abuse. 

Evaluation; no control group, the data was mostly qualitative, the study involved deception. But it was a field experiment so there is ecological validity.

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The biological approach

Key assumptions;

  • abnormal behaviour is a result of physical problems and should be treated medically
  • never blames an individual
  • determinist theory-suggests the individual has no free will over their illness

strengths of this approach;

  • treats psychology as a science, which means the method and reliability can be checked.
  • determinist because it takes responsibility away from the patient, which is good because they then know they arent at fault


  • reductionist because it underestimates the influence of social factors
  • cause and effect cant be established because research can't prove whether internal body functions cause the abnormality or vice versa
  • more suitable for some illnesses than others, so it lacks representativeness
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Bacteria or viruses that invade the body are known to produce physical disease but it is also thought that they may also cause mental abnormalities.


  • Barr et al suggested that flu during pregnancy lead to schizophrenia in the child later on in life. This occured in multiple cases.
  • General paresis is a mental disease where patients experience delusions of grandeur, forgetfullness and mental deterioration. This disease was found to be caused by the disease syphilis.
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Individuals may inherit a vulnerabilty to certain illnesses. This theory suggests that genes influence our behaviour and mental state as well as our physical traits.


  • Relatives of schizophrenics are 18 times more likely to develop the illness themselves
  • Holland's study on anorexia looked at twins, 100% identical twins and 50% identical twins. It aimed to investigate the chances of both twins having anorexia. For 100% identical the chance was 56%, but for 50% identical there was only a 6% chance.
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Mental disorders may be caused by a chemical inbalance in the body. Neurotransmitters exist between the synapses in our body. It is thought too much or too little could cause mental illness.


  • Sufferers of depression show a low level of serotonin in the brain.
  • Schizophrenia is linked to high levels of dopamine in the brain.
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This theory believes that the structure of the brain is different in those suffering from abnormalities, which causes the mental abnormalities.


  • Amnesia usually occurs because the part of the brain storing the LTM is damaged
  • Alzheimers is because of a loss of cells in the nervous system
  • Clive Wearing suffered from an infection that damaged his LTM
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ECT is electro convulsive therapy. It is a medical treatment that involves plaving electronic nodes on the side of the head (unilateral is where only one node is placed, bilateral has two nodes).

A small current of 0.6 amps is passed through the brain for 0.5 secs, aiming to cause a seizure lasting up to a minute. The patient is given aneasthetic and a muscle relaxant to reduce the risk of fractures. This is repeated 3 times a week with 3-15 sessions.


  • dangerous (could potentially cause fractures)
  • could possibly make it worse
  • there are side effects like memory loss and headaches
  • only treats the symptoms


  • can be effective (works 50% of the time)
  • used in extreme cases when drugs have no effect
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Anti-depressants improve serotonin levels, anti-psychotics block the D2 receptor of dopamine, Anti-anxiety have calming effects on the nervous system.

Drugs can be effective for around 60-70% of the time and can help supress symptoms.


  • safer than ECT
  • relatively quick results
  • usually effective


  • addiction-there is a possibility of becoming dependent on the drug
  • could overdose
  • treats symptoms, not cause
  • there are side effects like weight gain and tiredness
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The psychodynamic approach

Much of our behaviour is driven by unconscious motives. Childhood is a critical period in development and problems come from unresolved conflicts originating in childhood.

the structue of personality;

  • The ID is present at birth and is always seeking pleasure. It's very risky and indulgent.
  • The Superego is the conscious part of the unconscious, the part that considers morals and other people.
  • The Ego is the one trying to compromise between the ID and the superego

Defence mechanisms are used to deal with unwanted thoughts. These include;

  • denial, where you completely reject the thought, 
  • projection, where you attribute socially unacceptable thoughts onto other people
  • suppression, where you are vaguely aware of the thought but try to hide it
  • regression, where you revert to old, perhaps immature behaviour
  • sublimination, where you put the thought into a socially acceptable activity
  • displacement, where you redirect you thoughts to another target
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Freud's psychosexual stages of development

Freud suggested we pass through 5 stages of development, in which we focus our energy on a particular bodypart. If the child recieves too much or too little pleasure in a stage it could lead to abnormalities later on in life.

  • Oral (0-18 months). This is where the mouth is the main source of pleasure. Too little pleasure leads to neediness, overeating, drinking, passive. Too much leads to hostility, aggressiveness, sarcasm
  • Anal (18 months-3 years). Defecation is the main source of pleasre. Too little leads to very tidy, stubborn, likes order and control. Too much leads to generous but disorganised.
  • Phallic (3 yrs-6 yrs). Sexual organs main source of pleasure. Oedipus complex in boys (see parents as love objects, want fathers out of the way) and electra complex in girls (desire mother but believe she has castrated her leading to feelings of hostility)
  • Latency (6 yrs-puberty). Sexual urges go into hobbies. There is a focus on same sex friendships.
  • Puberty. Focus on genatalia and having healthy adult relationships. Should happen if all other stages were ok.
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Dream Analysis and Free Association

Dream Analysis;

Freud believed that dreams have an obvious content, called the manifest content. But they also have a symbolic meaning, known as the latent content. For Freud dreams were essentially wish fulfillment.

Free Association;

Patients are encouraged to let their minds wander and say whatever they think of. There is the idea that uncensored thoughts come from the unconscious and have been repressed, but after enough talking these thoughts should be brought to the conscious. It is then the therapist's job to interpret these thoughts.

There are weaknesses of this theory, because it is expensive, theoretical (based upon Freud's theory of personality which could be flawed), doesnt work for all conditions, and there is the potential for false memories to be planted by the therapist.

However Bergin found it to be effective with 80% of patients. 

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The cognitive approach

Key assumptions;

  • abnormality caused by negative and irrational thinking
  • an individual's distorted feelings may influence their behaviour
  • it is conscious thinking which the individual has the potential to control
  • external behaviour will stem from cognitive errors

Ellis' ABC Model;

  • A is the activating event
  • B is the Belief
  • C is the consequence

Beck's Cognitive Triad;

  • There is the self aspect, for example 'i smoke'
  • Then the world aspect, for example 'everyone thinks i smoke'
  • Then the future aspect, for example 'i'm always going to smoke' 
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Evaluation of the cognitive theory


  • attempts to deal with the cause as well as the symptoms
  • holistic (can be used with other treatments)


  • cant establish cause and effect
  • not deterministic (means that the blame is placed on the individual)
  • reductionist
  • doesnt treat psychology as a science
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Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

This assumes the problem behind a disorder to be the individual's way of thinking. By identifying the cause of the disorder the therapist can then help them think differently.

  • The first task is to understand the problem. The therapist will analyse the thoughts, behaviours and feelings to find out how unrealistic they are
  • Then to work out how to change the thoughts. The patient must replace bad thoughts with positive ones.
  • Then the patient must practice the techniques. They might even keep a thought diary. Progress is reviewed at each session, of which there are 8-12 in a full session. The sessions will carry on as long as the disorder exists.

The strengths are that it allows the patient to take control, is successful and attempts to tackle the cause of the abnormality.

The weaknesses are that it takes a long time, doesnt work with schizophrenia and the person will feel at fault for their problems.

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Behavioural Approach

This assumes that all behaviouris learnt, including maladaptive, through the  environment.This learning can be understood in terms of conditioning and modelling.

Classical Conditioning; 

Behaviours can be learnt through association. E.g someone with anorexia may associate it with control

Operant Conditioning; 

Behaviours are learnt through the process of positive and negative reinforcement. For example initial weight loss may prompt people to admire the person, so they continue to lose weight, developing into anorexia

Social Learning;

We learn from observing and imitating our role models. This happens because we see them recieving a reward and want that for ourselves, called indirect reinforcement. For example, people see thin celebrities recieving praise so resort to anorexia.

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Evaluation of the Behavioural Approach

  • not a good explanation for all disorders
  • assumes learning happens the same way for humans and animals
  • reductionist
  • determinist
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Watson and Rayner

They used an 11 month old boy to investigate whether phobias could be learnt. At the start of the experiment the boy had no fear of things like cotton, rabbits or rats. 

They used a loud sound to stimulate a fear response from Albert and then paired a neutral stimulus (a white rat) with the loud sound, making the sound every time Albert went to stoke the rat. After that when they showed Albert the rat he started to cry. They had conditioned a fear response in him. Classical conditioning had occured.


  • lab experiment (can control extraneous variables)
  • informed consent from parents


  • lacks population validity
  • lacks eco validity
  • psychological harm
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Systematic Desensitisation

This is based on classical conditioning and begins with teaching the patient how to relax. The patient then learns exercise and muscular control techniques.

It involves an anxiety hierarchy which is a list of the least frightening and most frightening aspects of the phobia, which the therapist will work up, making sure the patient stays relaxed. The patient should begin to associate the phobia with relaxation more than fear.


  • considered the most effective treatment for anxieties and phobias. It is estimated that around 80-90% of phobias are helped through this technique
  • SD is more ethical than other methods like flooding, which cause the patient more harm


  • Marks et al suggested that SD only works because of exposure to the fear, not relaxation
  • It cant be used to treat serious illnesses
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