Chapter 1- Abnormal Psychology: An Overview
Identifying Psychological Abnormality
We will begin by defining our topic, which brings us to our first controversy.
Establishing a benchmark for what is considered normal or abnormal seems quite
contrary to our current social values of tolerance, diversity and individual
differences. Yet all 'differences' occur on a continuum of adaptation. Some
'differences' can become debilitating problems and can cause great suffering.
Consider the case of someone who is very organized and tidy – an admirable trait
in an employee or roommate. But what if the desire for organization becomes so
extreme that the person cannot stop organizing? What if they tidy up relentlessly?
What if the books on the bookshelf are constantly ordered in terms of author,
subject, book size etc., the silverware is impeccably ordered, as are the CD's,
And what if the need for order becomes obsessive so that the person cannot relax
or even speak in the presence of someone whose tie is crooked? Or cannot be in a
room where the pictures are not hung straight? At a moderate level this obsession
can cause relationship and employment difficulties. At a severe level, the person's
survival is threatened because they cannot tolerate the asymmetry of the outside
world and so will not leave their rigidly ordered house.
We are not comfortable in the presence of someone who acts in a way that violates
social norms. (For a quick test of this, try talking to yourself really loudly the next
time you are sitting on the bus and observe the reaction of your fellow passengers.)
But our 'comfort' is not the main issue. Sometimes basic functioning, safety, or
survival is at stake and a great deal of suffering can be involved. When these are
the factors, most people agree that intervention is appropriate.
Of course, there is lots of debate around this. Some parents might argue that their
adolescent son's refusal to complete high school is not normal (all their friends'
children are still in school), is not adaptive (quitting will minimize employment
prospects) and is threatening to his well-being (he might end up jobless, on the
streets) and should therefore be treated as a mental illness. On the other hand,
other parents refuse treatment for their child's auditory hallucinations and delusions
because, they argue, it is normal (the product of a creative imagination), adaptive
(provides an outlet) and non-threatening (no risk to the child's safety). Obviously
there is much that is subject to interpretation.
This challenge to define 'normal' and 'abnormal' is significant for researchers,
mental health practitioners, and for a society attempting to provide support.
The Elements of Abnormality
As you have read, the concept of abnormality is generally confined by six elements:
1. Suffering: When people suffer psychologically such as in
depression or anxiety disorders. This is not the same type of suffering
as being worried for a test. This category cannot alone define
abnormality due to the fact that some people don’t actually suffer
psychologically (ex. If the patient is manic – will have manic ‘highs’)
2. Maladaptiveness: When behaviour interferes with our well-being
and ability to enjoy our work and our relationships. (ex. Anorexic person
might need to be hospitalized; Person diagnosed with depression may
withdraw from friends and family for weeks or months and not return to
work.) 3. Deviancy: The word abnormal means ‘away from the normal’. But
simply considering statistically rare behaviour to be abnormal does not
provide us with a solution to our problem of defining abnormality. To
define abnormality, we make value judgements and determine whether
or not the behaviour is specifically rare and undesirable (mental
retardation) rather than rare and desirable (genius). We also do not
consider something undesirable and statistically common to be
4. Violation of the Standards of Society: All cultures have rules. Some
of these rules are formulated as laws. Others form the norms and moral
standards that we are taught to follow. Although many rules are arbitrary
to some extent, when people fail to follow the conventional social and
moral rules we may consider their behaviour abnormal. Of course, much
depends on the magnitude of the violation and on how commonly it is
violated by others. (ex. illegal parking vs. man shooting multiple people
for no reason)
5. Social Discomfort: When someone violates a social rule, those
around him or her may experience a sense of discomfort or unease. (ex,
when a person you met 4 minutes ago tells you of their suicide attempt.)
6. Irrationality and Unpredictability: We expect people to behave in
certain ways. Although a little unconventionality may add some spice to
life there is a point at which we are likely to consider a given unorthodox
behaviour abnormal. Perhaps the most important factor appears to be
whether or not the person can control his behaviour.
The decision to intervene (treat) someone who is acting abnormally is not
up to a family member or a well-intended but untrained professional. Since
'treatment' may include revoking a person's freedom, expert diagnosis is
mandatory. It has not always been so. There was a time when a woman
could be committed to an institution at the request of her husband if he felt
her behaviour was not normal (if, for example, she seemed unhappy being
Diagnosis involves having someone who is trained to evaluate a person's
condition, based on the six elements above, and taking into consideration
history, context, cultural norms, illness or environmental influences. If done
responsibly, diagnosis involves a fairly extensive investigation.
Identifying 'normal' is not always about diagnosing 'abnormal'. Sometimes
researchers simply want to know what 'normal' is so that they can divide
their subjects into high and low scores on a particular scale (like
extroversion). Educators like to know what 'normal' expectations are in
terms of development.
• Family aggregation: The clusters of certain traits, behaviours, or disorders
within a given family. Family aggregation may arise because of genetic or
• Asking questions is an important part of being a psychologist.
Psychologists are trained to ask questions and conduct research although they
may not continue to perform research in th