Definitions of Abnormality


Deviation from Social Norms

  • Social norms are accepted ways of behaving in a particular society. This theory suggests that people who break or reject social norms and behave in a socially deviant way should be regarded as normal

Limitations of this definition

  • Before the behaviour can be labelled as abnormal, it must be defined by the situatoin in which it occurs as well as the behaviour itself
  • Deviation from social norms does not give a universal definition of abnormality,as it is limeted to the norms of a given society at any one time
  • What is considered a social norm in one culture may not be acceptable in another 
  • Social norms change over time
  • To be socially deviant is not necessarily a bad thing if the social norms are harmful or discriminate against others
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Failure to Function Adequately

  • This means that a person is unable to live a normal life or engage in a normal range of behaviours 
  • This approach focuses on the individuals behaviour and emotions
  • Behaviour is considered to be abnormal if it causes great distress and prevents them from living successfully in their own culture

Rosenhan and Seligman (1989) suggested there were 6 features of abnormality. The more of the features that are present, the more abnormal an individual is considered to be

  • Personal Distress
  • Maladaptive Behaviour
  • Unpredictability
  • Observer Discomfort
  • Violation of Moral and Ideal Standards
  • Irrationality
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Limitations of the failure to function adequately

Limitations of this definition

  • Most of the above features may be shown for quite normal reasons such as grieving for a close friend or relative. In these situations, personal distress may be quite normal and it would be considered abnormal not to be distressed
  • It is not clear how extreme the behaviour has to be in order to be considered abnormal. For instance, most people engage in unpredictable, irrational or maladaptive behaviour at some point, but at what point is it considered abnormal
  • Cultural relativism - adequate functioning may be different in different cultures 
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Deviation from ideal mental health

  • This approach concentrates on defining the normal characteristics people should posess 
  • Therefore, abnormality is seen as a deviation from these ideals of mental health

Jahoda (1958) identified six criteria relating to ideal mental health. These factors are required for 'optimal living'. The furthur people are from these ideals, the more abnormal they are;

  • Positive attitude towards self
  • Potential for growth and development
  • Autonomy
  • Resistance to stress
  • Environmantal mastery
  • Accurate perception of reality

Limitations of this definition

  • Most people don't meet all of these ideals all of the time e.g. most peoples attitudes towards themselves is often less than positive 
  • It is not clear how many of the criteria need to be lacking to be considered abnormal
  • Cultural relativism - Several of these criteria of ideal mental health are ideals of Western individualist cultures and may not be desirable in collectivist cultures
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