Definitions of Abnormality

__Psychopathology __refers to the study of mental disorders and abnormal behaviour.

Statistical deviation: Under this definition, a person’s trait, thinking or behaviour is classified as abnormal if it is rare or statistically unusual (if most people don’t do it/have the characteristic). With this definition it is necessary to be clear about how rare a trait or behaviour needs to be before we class it as abnormal. For example, a small section of the population (less than 2.2%) have an IQ of less than 70, therefore they may be described as having an abnormally low IQ (intellectual disability disorder).


  • This does not consider the desirability of behaviours or traits. For example, very high intelligence or extremely altruistic behaviour are both statistically rare, but would not generally be classed as ‘abnormal’. Additionally, many rare behaviours or characteristics (e.g. left handedness) have no bearing on normality or abnormality.
  • On the other side of the coin, some behaviours/characteristics are regarded as abnormal even though they are statistically quite frequent. For example, depression may affect 27% of elderly people. This would make it common but that does not mean it isn’t a problem. Therefore, statistical deviation is not enough to classify someone as abnormal.

__Deviation from social norms: __Under this definition, a person’s thinking or behaviour is classified as abnormal if it violates the (unwritten) rules about what is expected or acceptable behaviour in a particular social group. Their behaviour may be incomprehensible to others, and make others feel threatened or uncomfortable. For example, a stranger sitting next to someone on the bus when all the other seats are available.


  • What is normal in one culture may not be normal in another. This leads to the problem of cultural relativism, where the behaviour needs to be judges in the context of the culture it is taking place in. Ways of greeting, interacting, and acceptable subjects for discussion all vary so much between (and perhaps within) cultures, so the definition is too hard to apply
  • Some groups could be unfairly labelled as abnormal by using this definition. For example, homosexuality was seen as going against social norms, and was even classified as criminal behaviour, but is not now recognised as such. Therefore, groups which deviate from the accepted standards of behaviour may find themselves being classified as mentally ill, unjustifiably.

Failure to function adequately: Under this definition, a person is considered abnormal if they are unable to cope with the demands of everyday life. They may be unable to perform the behaviours necessary for day-to-day living, for example self-care, holding down a job, and interacting meaningfully with others. Rosenhan & Seligman (1989) suggested the following characteristics would not enable someone to function adequately:

  • Suffering
  • Maladaptiveness (being a danger to self)
  • Vividness and unconventionality (standing out)
  • Unpredictability & loss of control
  • Irrationality/incomprehensibility
  • Causes the observer discomfort
  • Violates moral/social standards

Abnormality, figure 1


  • A strength is that this definition acknowledges the patient’s own feelings, for example if they are suffering, whereas the previous two do not.
  • A weakness is that ‘failing to function’ could just be going against a social norm (e.g. living an alternative lifestyle which involves not going to work, not living in a fixed home). Therefore, a person could be judges as not functioning when they actually are.
  • Most people fail to function adequately at some time, but are not considered ‘abnormal’. For example, after a bereavement most people find it difficult to cope normally. Indeed, they might actually be considered more abnormal if they functioned as usual. Therefore, this definition cannot be applied in all circumstances.

__Deviation from ideal mental health: __Under this definition, rather than defining what is abnormal, we define what is normal/ideal and anything that deviates from this is regarded as abnormal. This requires us to decide on the characteristics we consider necessary to mental health. Jahoda (1958) proposed the following criteria:

The absence of these criteria means, by definition, the person is suffering from abnormal behaviour.


  • What is considered ‘ideal’ is historically and culturally specific. For example, being independent may not be valued in collectivist cultures, where value is placed on group activity. Therefore, this definition may not work in all cultures.
  • Jahoda’s criteria for ideal mental health set the bar too high. Strictly applied, so few people actually meet all of these criteria that everyone ends up classed as abnormal and so the concept becomes meaningless.

Characteristics of Phobias

A phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something, someone, or a situation.

Behavioural characteristics (outward signs): Include panic, for example trying to run away, screaming and crying; avoidance, for example trying not to touch door handles in public places due to a phobia of germs; and endurance, for example having to ‘deal with’ the situation (having to get a flight when scared of flying).

Emotional characteristics (feelings): Include anxiety- being in an unpleasant, heightened state of arousal. The emotions experienced are out of proportion to the danger posed, for example an arachnophobia sufferer reacting with extreme anxiety at the sight of a tiny spider.

Cognitive characteristics (thoughts): Include paying selective attention to the feared object, so not being able to concentrate on anything else. Thoughts are often irrational, for example being afraid to go outside due to the (tiny) likelihood of something bad happening. Cognitive distortions are where normal objects are perceived as ugly or repulsive by the sufferer.

Characteristics of Depression

Abnormality, figure 1

Depression is a disorder characterised usually by low mood and lowered activity levels.

Behavioural characteristics: Include lowered activity levels, for example finding it hard to get out of bed, or being agitated; disruption to sleep and eating behaviour, for example eating or sleeping more or less than usual; and aggression toward others and self-harm.

Emotional characteristics: Include a lowered mood, for example feeling worthless, unhappy and ‘empty’; anger, which can be directed toward the self or others; and lowered self-confidence and self-esteem.

Cognitive characteristics: Include poor concentration, for example being unable to stick to and finish a task; dwelling on the negative, for example only focusing on the bad aspects of a situation and ignoring the positive aspects; and absolutist thinking, where things are perceived as perfect successes or disasters, with nothing in between.

Characteristics of OCD

OCD is characterised by obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviours.

Behavioural characteristics: These are the compulsions- the need to perform certain actions. These actions may be repetitive, for example tidying and ordering things continuously, and are usually done to reduce anxiety associated with an obsessive thought, for example, continual hand-washing in response to the thought of being contaminated by germs.

Emotional characteristics: Include anxiety and distress- the thoughts and actions are associated with unpleasant feelings. Often people with OCD also experience depression. They also include guilt and disgust, the feeling that the sufferer has done, or will do, something terrible. The disgust may be directed towards an external stimulus.

Cognitive characteristics: These are the obsessive aspect- obsessive thoughts which are unpleasant and are continually recurring, for example being worried that a door or window has been left unlocked in the house. OCD sufferers have insight into their thoughts, meaning that they know they are not thinking rationally, but they cannot help the thoughts and compulsive behaviours.

Jake suffers from a phobia of spiders. Whenever he sees a spider he shouts out in terror and tries to get as far away from it as possible. This is the case even with the smallest spiders he sees. Jake never goes to wildlife parks or watches nature documentaries; in case he sees a spider in these situations. When questioned about his fear, Jake says ‘I just hate the look of spiders, their beady eyes and crawling legs make me feel sick and afraid.’

Outline the characteristics of phobias. Refer to Jake in your answer. (6 marks- 2-3 paragraphs)
Your answer should include: Behavioural / Panic / Avoidance / Emotional / Cognitive