Defenitions of abnormality


Deviation from social norms

Social norms are accepted ways of behaving within society.

Deviation from these norms are considered undesirable.

In the past homosexuality was classified as deviant in the UK.

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Limitations of deviation from social norms

  • social norms varies as times change - susceptible to abuse. What is socially acceptable now may not have been socially acceptable 50 years ago
  • making judgements on deviance is often related to the context of the behaviour: wearing a bikini to the beach is socially acceptable but if you wore a bikini to a social gathering it would be classed as abnormal.
  • In many cases there is not a clear line between what is abnormal deviation and what is simply harmless eccentricity
  • attempts to define abnormality in terms of social norms are influenced by cultural factors. Different cultures behave in different ways in the same situation.
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Failure to function adequately

Society sets the standard for how people should lead their lives and a failure to meet this standard of functioning could therefore be regarded as abnormal.

People suffering from abnormality often report that they are in discomfort or sufferent, but this does not always mean that they are abnormal.

Being able to adapt to new situations enables a person to reach their personal goals in life. Being unable to adapt would prevent this and so could be considered abnormal.

However, it may be that the inability to adapt is caused by lack of knowledge or understanding a situation rather than by abnormality.

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Limitations of being able to function adequately

  • someone has to decide if someone is 'trying to function adequately'. If the patient is experiencing personal distress e.g. managing day-to-day life; then the patient themselves might determine that their behaviour is abnormal. But it might be that the individual is simply unaware that they are not coping. It is others who are uncomfortable and judge the behaviour as abnormal. For example; schizophrenics do not feel they have a problem, but their erratic behaviour can be distressing to others
  • some 'disfunctional behaviour' can be adaptive and functional for the individual. For example people who cross-dress make a living out of it but transvestitism is generally recorded as abnormal.
  • the 'failure to function' criteria is likely to result in different diagnosis when applied to people from different culutres, because the standard of one cultutre is being used to measure another
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Deviation from ideal mental health

Maire Jahoda said it was more useful to define abnormality in terms of understanding what is nornal behaviour rather than abnormal.

Jahoda listed 6 characteristics of ideal mental health, and not possessing these would be seen as abnormal:

1. coping with stressful situations

2. having an accurate perception of reality

3. being able to master the environment and adapt to change

4. having high self-esteem and a strong sense of identity

5. personal growth and self-actualisation

6. being independant and self-regulating

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Limitations of deviation from ideal mental health

  • how many need to be lacking before a person would be judged as abnormal?
  • personal growth and self-actualisation are relevant to Western or individualistic cultures. Non-western or collectivist cultures value the success of a community rather than the individuals in it, yet they are not lacking in ideal mental health because of this
  • physical illness have physical causes but mental illnesses do not because they are the consequence of a life experience. Therefore it is unlikely that we could diagnose mental abnormality in the same way that we can diagnose physical abnormality.
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