Chapter 1: Looking at Abnormality January 9, 2008
x The study of abnormal psychology is the study of people, who suffer mental, emotional and often
physical pain as a result of some form of psychological or mental disorder, often referred to as
x The context or circumstance surrounding a behavior influences whether a behavior is viewed as
gender roles, which are expectations for the behavior of an individual based on his or her gender.
Other theorist have argued for what might appear on the surface, these focus on the unusualness of
the behavior, the discomfort of the person exhibiting the behavior, the presence of mental illness and
the maladaptiveness of the behavior.
x The cultural relativism perspective holds that there are no universal standards or rules for labeling a
behavior as abnormal. Instead, behaviors can only be abnormal relative to cultural norms. Cultural
relativists believe that there are different definitions of abnormality across different cultures.
x Opponents of cultural relativism argue that dangers arise when societal norms are allowed to dictate
what is normal and abnormal. E.g. Thomas Szasz notes that throughout history, societies have labeled
individuals and groups as abnormal in order to justify controlling or silencing them. Hitler branded
Jews abnormal and used this as one justification for the Holocaust.
x The cultural relativist perspective creates many difficulties in defining abnormality.
x Behaviors that are unusual or rare are considered abnormal whereas behaviors that are typical or
usual are considered normal.
x The unusualness of criterion for abnormality has two other problems (1) although the criterion may be
objective; someone still has to decide how rare the behavior must be in order to call it abnormal. (2)
Many rare behaviors are positive for the individual and for society and most people would object to
labeling such behaviors as abnormal. E.g. we dRQ¶WODEHOWKHSOD\LQJRIDSLDQRYLUWXRVRDEQRUPDO
We label it as gifted. In addition, other people may have hobbies that are rare but are a source of
great joy for them and do not harm others, these people are called eccentrics.
x Proponents of a discomfort criterion for abnormality suggest that behaviors should be considered
abnormal only if the individual suffers discomfort and wishes to be rid of the behaviors. This
criterion avoids the problem of using societal norms as the criterion for DEQRUPDOLW\,IDSHUVRQ¶V
behaviors violate societal norms but do not cause him/her harm than the behavior should not be
considered abnormal. This viewpoint changes how psychologist and psychiatrists viewed
x Some therapists object to the subjective discomfort criterion b/c people are not always aware of
problems their behaviors create for themselves and others. The behaviors of some people cause great
discomfort in others if not they.
x Abnormality is a behavior that results from mental disease or illness. Mental illness criterion implies
behaviors or symptoms. However many mental illnesses have no biological test to date that could
inform us. In addition, many theorists believe that most mental health problems are due to a number
of complex biological and psychosocial factors rather than to single abnormal genes or disease
x Maladaptive that cause people to suffer distress and that prevent them from functioning in daily life
are abnormal and should e the focus of research and intervention. Mental professionals tend to label
Chapter 1: Looking at Abnormality January 9, 2008
maladaptive for behaviors and feelings that are highly unusually or deviant. There are three
components of maladaptiveness:
1. Dysfunction: the behaviors or feelings prevent the person from functioning in daily life
2. Distress the behaviors or feelings cause the person or others significant distress
3. Deviance the behavior or feelings are highly unusual
x Culture and gender can affect maladaptive behavior:
1. It can influence how likely it is that a maladaptive behavior will be shown
2. It can influence the ways people express distress or lose touch with reality
3. ,WFDQLQIOXHQFHSHRSOH¶VZLOOingness to admit to maladaptive behaviors.
4. It can influence the types of treatments people will accept.
Historical Perspectives on Abnormality
x 3 types of theories of the causes of abnormal behavior gave competed for dominance across time. The
biological theories saw abnormal behavior as similar to physical disease caused by the breakdown of
systems in the body, the cure was the restoration of the body to good health. The supernatural
theories saw abnormal behavior as a result of divine intervention, curses, demonic possession and
personal sin. To rid the person of the disorder, religious rituals, exorcisms, confessions, and
atonement were prescribed. The psychological theories saw abnormal behavior as a result of
traumas, such as bereavement or chronic stress. Relaxation, a change of environment and certain
herbal medicines were helpful for the afflicted person.
Evil spirits of the Stone Age
x Prehistoric people had a concept of insanity, one rooted in supernatural beliefs. Demons and ghost
were the cause of abnormal behavior and if a person acted oddly he or she was suspected of being
possessed by evil spirits. The treatment for this was exorcism²driving evil spirits from the body of
the suffering person.
x During the Stone Age one treatment was to drill holes in the skulls of people displaying abnormal
behavior which allowed the evil spirits to depart. The tool used for this drilling is called a trephine
and the operation is called trephination.
Ancient China: Balancing Yin and Yang
x Ancient Chinese medicine was based on the balancing of the bodies Yang (positive forces) and Yin
(negative forces), which confronted and complemented each other. If the two forces were in balance
the individual was healthy if not, illness, even insanity could result.
x Chinese medical philosophers thought human emotions were controlled by internal organs. The
ancient Chinese perspective on psychological symptoms were largely a biological theory in ancient
times, the rise of Taoism and Buddhism led to some religious interpretations of abnormal behavior,
such as evil winds and ghosts were blamed for bewitching people.
x Some of the earliest medical writings on mental disorders came from ancient Chinese texts.
Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome: Biological Theories Dominate
x Some of the earliest written references to abnormal behavior can be found in Chinese medical text
around 2674 B.C. and then in the papyri of Egypt and Mesopotamia, in the Old Testament and in the
writings of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and physicians. Abnormal behaviors were
described as medical disorders in these ancient writings, although there is also evidence that they
were viewed as due to supernatural forces.
x According to Hippocrates, the body was composed of 4 basic humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile,
essential humors. He classified abnormal behaviors into epilepsy, mania, melancholia, and brain
fever. He also recognized hysteria, but it was not viewed as a mental disease.
x The middle ages were dominated by an obsession with witchcraft and supernatural forces. Between
the 11th and 15th century.
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PSY240H1 Full Course Notes