HideShow resource information

Definitions of abnormality

Statistical Infrequency - behaviours that are rare are classed as abnormal. Most human characteristics form a normal distribution. Abnormal behaviour is defined as being more than two standard deviations away from the mean. This is roughly about 5% of the population. EXAMPLE - obesity, anorexia, higher or lower than normal IQ.

Deviation from social norms- behaviours that break social norms are abnormal. When people break these social norms, they are not behaving in the ways that we expect them to. Their behaviour may offend people and may be deemed as criminal. EXAMPLE - having 'too many' piercings, going out wearing no clothes etc.

Failure to function adequately- people are abnormal when they can no longer cope with everyday life and function normally. Rosenhan and Seligman proposed seven signs that someone was not functioning adequately: unpredictability, maladaptive behaviour, personal distress, irrationality, observer discomfort, violation of moral standards and unconventionality. EXAMPLE - lacking basic hygiene e.g. not washing properly (world's dirtiest man)

Deviation from ideal mental health- lacking features of psychological health is viewed as abnormal. Jahoda - six features of ideal mental health: self-attitude (high self esteem), personal growth and self actualisation (developing to full capabilites), integration (being able to cope with stressful situations), autonomy (being independent and able to look after your self), an accurate perception of reality (seeing life as it really is) and mastery of the environment (being able to adjust to new environments). EXAMPLE - depression, cannot look after your self, not reaching full potential.

1 of 12

Evaluation of Definitions of Abnormality

Statistic infrequency:

Strengths - objective (cut-off point is agreed, it is an objective way of measuring abnormality and has no personal judgement), useful (in many situations, statistical infrequency can define abnormality very well), no value judgements (no judgements are made about whether a behaviour is 'wrong' or 'unacceptable').

Weaknesses - rare behaviour can be positive (for example being intelligent), many abnormal behaviours are frequent (around 10% of population will suffer from depression, so this suggests that it is common enough to not be abnormal), labelling (not everyone with a rare behaviour will benefit from being labelled as abnormal, may have a negative effect on how others view them)

Deviation from social norms:

Strengths - situational norms (the definition considers the context of behaviour e.g. the setting / country), developmental norms (definition establishes norms for different age groups), helps people (definition gives society the right to intervene in abnormal people's lives)

Weaknesses - subjective (social norms are based on opinions), ethnocentric bias (western social norms reflect the behaviour of the majoirty of the white population), cultural differences (social norms vary within and across cultures, so it is difficult to know when social norms are being broken).

2 of 12

Evaluation of Definitions of Abnormality

Failure to function adequately:

Strengths - matches sufferers perceptions (most people seek clinical help because they are suffering from a psychological proble, that interferes with functioning properly), assess the degree of abnormality (GAF scored on a continuous scale, clinicians can see the degree to which individuals are abnormal), observable behaviour (allows others to judge whether individuals are functioning properly as it focuses on behaviour that can be seen).

Weaknesses - abnormality is not always dysfunctional (people may be abnormal, but appear normal to the outside world e.g. psychopaths), normal abnormality (there are times when it is normal and acceptable for people to suffer distress etc. e.g. when a loved one dies), distress to others (behaviour may cause distress to other people and be regarded as dysfunctional, while the person in question feels no distress e.g. schizophrenic people).

3 of 12

Types of Phobias

Specific phobias occur when sufferers have fears of specific objects and situations e.g. arachnophobia, arithmophobia etc.

Agoraphobias are the fear of leaving home or a safe place, or the fear of going outside in public 'unsafe' places, and often involve panic attacks e.g. enochlophobia (fear of crowds).

Social anxiety phobias involve anxiety in social situations and the fear of being judged and feeling inadequate e.g. angrophobia, or the fear of public speaking.

4 of 12

Characteristics of Phobias

Behavioural symptoms of phobias (how the sufferer acts):

  • Avoidance - efforts are made to avoid the phobic stimulus in order to reduce anxiety.
  • Disruption of Functioning - anxiety and avoidance are so extreme that they interfere with everyday life.
  • Endurance - if the sufferer has to remain in the presence of the phobic stimulus, they will exhibit extreme panic.
  • Panic - panic will be experienced in response to the phobic stimulus. This may result in crying or running away.

Emotional Symptoms (how the sufferer feels):

  • Anxiety - severe anxiety will be experienced in response to the phobic stimulus or anticipation of the stimulus.
  • Fear - an immediate fear response is experienced in the presence of the phobic stimulus. It's unreasonable.
  • Cognitive: Cognitive distortions - percetions of the phobic stimulus are often distorted e.g. seen as evil or ugly.
  • Irrational beliefs - sufferers often have false beliefs about the danger of the phobic stimulus.
  • Selective attention - sufferer will struggle to focus on anything else if they are near the phobic stimulus.
5 of 12

Describing Behavioursit explanation of phobias


Phobias are acquired by classical conditioning and then maintained by operant conditioning.


Acquisition of the phobias - an object/situation we initially have no fear of (NS) is paired with something that triggers a fear response (UCS). We then fear that object or situation.

For example, you could have no fear of rats, and then one day whilst you are with a rat, a loud bang occurs that causes you to be scared. This conditions you into being scared of the rat.

Maintenance of phobias - over time, responses acquired througb classical conditioning will diminish if further pairings of the NS and UCS are not prevented. However, phobias are long-lasting. Operant conditioning is responsible for this.

By avoiding phobic stimulus, a sufferer avoids the fear and anxiety they would experience. This reduction in anxiety reinforces the avoidance behaviour and so phobias are maintained. This is negative reinforcement.

6 of 12

Evaluating the Behaviourist explanation of phobias

Supporting - Watson and Rayner conditioned an 11 month old boy to display a fear reaction to a white rat by pairing the rat with the noise produced by a hammer hitting a steel bar. When subsequently shown the white rat, the boy cried and tried to cral away. This shows that it is possible to induce fear as a result of environment experiences.

Opposing - Cook and Mineka showed labratory raised monkeys a video of a wild money's fear response to either a snake, rabbit, crocodile or flower. After seeing the video a few times, the labratory monkeys responded fearfully to a snake and crocodile, but not the rabbit for the flower, suggesting that we can only be conditioned to fear objects we are evolutionary prepared to fear.

General -

  • the effectiveness of behaviourist treatments, like systematic desensitisation, lends to support the explanation.
  • not everyone who experiences a traumatic event, like a car crash, goes on to develop a phobia, and so another factor must be involved.
  • in many cases of phobias, a person may develop one, but not be aware of having a related bad experience.
7 of 12

Describing Behaviourist treatments of Phobias


Systematic Desensitisation aims to gradually reduce phobic anxiety through the princple of classical conditioning. If the sufferer can learn to relax in the presence of the phobic stimulus, they will be cured. The phobic stimulus will be paired with relaxation instead of anxiety. This is called counter conditioning.


There are three processes involved in systematic desensitisation:

  • Anxiety hierarchy - a list of situations related to the phobic stimulus in order from least to most frightening.
  • Relaxation - relaxation techniques are taugh such as breathing exercises, mental imagery oe meditation. Some patients use anti-anxiety drugs such as Valium.
  • Gradual exposure - the patient is exposed to a stimulus whilst in a relaxed state. They begin at the bottom of the hierarchy on the first session. Once the patient can stay relaxed, they move up the hierarchy.
8 of 12

Describing Behaviourist treatments of Phobias


Flooding involves immediate and prolonged exposure to a high anxiety situation for phobic patients.


Without the option of avoidance, the patient quickly learns that the phobic stimulus is harmless. Anxiety levels initially rise in the presence of the stimulus, but then start to fall. This causes extinction of the conditioned response (fear). Some phobias can be cure in one long session of flooding.

9 of 12

Evaluating Systematic Desensitisation

Supporting studies - Jones used behavioural therapy to eradicate 'Little Peter's' phobia of white fluffy objects such as rabbits and cotton wool. A rabbit was presented to the patient at closer distances each time his anxiety levels subsided. Peter was rewarded with food to produce a positive association with the rabbit. He eventually developed affection for the rabbit, which he generalised to other similar objects. This shows that SD is an effective treatment for specific phobias.

Opposing studies - Slaap et al treated 30 social phobics with an anti-depressant drug. 72% of patients had reduced heart rate and blood pressure in phobic situations. This suggests that drugs are affective in reducing the physical symptoms of phobias in the short term. This suggests that drugs may be a more effect treatment.

General Strengths:

  • it is effective - research has shown that it is effective.
  • it is suitable to a wide range of patients, unlike other techniques such as flooding.
10 of 12

Evaluating Flooding

Supporting studies - Wolpe used flooding to cure a girl's phobia of being in cars. The girl was forced into a car and driven around for 4 hous until her hysteria was eradicated. From then on, she associated a sense of ease with being in a car. This shows that flooding is an effective treatment for specific phobias.

Opposing studies - Slaap et al treated 30 social phobics with an anti-depressant drug. 72% of patients had reduced heart rate and blood pressure in phobic situations. This suggests drugs are effective in reducing the physical symptoms of phobias in the short term.

General Strengths and weaknesses:

Flooding is cost effective, as it is proven to be highly effective and quicker than other methods, making it cheaper because patients do not need to be treated for as long.

Although it is more effective for simple phobias, it appears to be less so for more complex behaviours.

It is very traumatic, and so some patients do not see it through to the end, so time and money are wasted.

11 of 12

Evaluation of Definitions of Abnormality

Deviation from ideal mental health:

Strengths - positivity (definition emphasises positive achievements rather than failures and distress), target areas of dysfunction (definition allows targeting of what areas to work on when treating abnormality), holistic (definition considers an individual as a whole person, rather than focusing on symptoms).

Weaknesses - over-demanding criteria (most people do not meet all the ideals, therefore most people are abnormal), subjective criteria (many of the criteria are vague and difficult to measure), culture bias (the criteria are culturally relative and should not be used to judge those from other cultures.

12 of 12


No comments have yet been made

Similar Psychology resources:

See all Psychology resources »See all Abnormality resources »