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Abnormality is a subjectively defined characteristic, assigned to those with rare or dysfunctional abilities, attitudes, conditions etc. Defining who is normal or abnormal is a contentious issue in abnormal psychology. The term is used both in the statistical sense of deviation from the central tendency of a normal distribution and in the sense of behavioral deviation from the social norm approaching pathology. Problems arise when it is not clear which use of the term is employed. So, for example, a person with very high intelligence is abnormal statistically, but not pathologically.

Several conventional criteriaEdit

  • One simple thing is statistical infrequency. This has an obvious flaw — the extremely intelligent, honest, or happy are just as abnormal as their opposites. Therefore, abnormal behaviour is considered to be statistically rare as well as undesirable.
  • A more discerning criterion is distress. A person who is displaying a great deal of depression, anxiety, unhappiness, etc. is defined to be abnormal. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of their own mental state, and while they may benefit from help, they feel no compulsion to receive it.
  • Another criterion is morality. This presents many difficulties, because it would be impossible to agree on a single set of morals for the purposes of diagnosis.
  • One criterion commonly referenced is maladaptivity. If a person is behaving in ways counterproductive to their own well-being, it is considered maladaptive. While tighter than the above criteria, it does have some shortcomings. For example, moral behavior including dissent and abstinence may be considered maladaptive to some.
  • Abnormal behaviour violates the standards of society. When people do not follow the conventional social and moral rules of their society, the behaviour is considered abnormal. However, the magnitude of the violation and how commonly it is violated by others must be taken into consideration.
  • Another element of abnormality is that abnormal behaviour will cause social discomfort to those who witness such behaviour.
  • The standard criteria in psychology and psychiatry is that of mental illness. Determination of abnormality is based upon medical diagnosis. This is often criticized for removing control from the 'patient', and being easily manipulated by political or social goals.

A mneumonic commonly used as a reference to define abnormality SID's eFFing DIM:

  • SI: Statistical Infrequency simply defines whether a behaviour is abnormal if it doesn't happen very often. There are no negative or positive overtones when using this definition of abnormality, as it covers behaviours which others don't deem 'abnormal' i.e. stamp-collectors, racing drivers.
  • D's: Deviation from social norms defines whether a behaviour is abnormal if it is a behaviour 'outside' of society's 'circle' of what is acceptable. The main problem with this definition of abnormality is that not all behaviours that break social norms are 'wrong', and that even some social norms need to be broken i.e. women wearing traditonally men's clothes. Another problem is that there are some behaviours that individuals may do, but don't openly admit it i.e. picking their noses is a crude example that not many people would admit to.
  • FF: The Failure to Function Adequately definition of abnormality defines whether or not a behaviour is abnormal if it is counterproductive to the individual. The main problem with this definition however is that psychologists cannot agree on the boundaries that define what is 'functioning' and what is 'adequately', as some behaviours that can cause 'failure to function' are not seen as bad i.e. firemen risking their lives to save people in a blazing fire.
  • DIM: Deviation from Ideal Mental health defines abnormality by determining if the behaviour the individual is portraying is affecting their mental well-being. As with the Failure to Function definition, the boundaries that stipulate what 'ideal mental health' is are not properly defined, and the bigger problem with the definition is that all individuals will at some point in their life deviate from ideal mental health, but it does not mean they are abnormal i.e. someone who has lost a relative will be distressed, but would not be defined as abnormal for showing that particular behaviour.

A common approach to defining abnormality is a Multi-Criteria approach, where all definitions of abnormality are used to determine whether an individuals behaviour is abnormal i.e. if an individual is exercising a particular behaviour that is preventing them from 'functioning', breaks a social norm and is statistically infrequent then psychologists would be prepared to define this individual as abnormal. A good example of an abnormal behaviour assessed by a multi-criteria approach is depression: it is commonly seen as a deviation from ideal mental stability, it often stops the individual from 'functioning' a normal life and some could say it is statistically infrequent.

See alsoEdit


Further readingEdit

Key textsEdit


  • Cohen, H. (1981). The evolution of the concept of disease. In A. Caplan, H Englhardt, & J. McCarthy (eds) Concepts of health and disease: Interdisciplinary perspectives (pp209-220) Reading MA:Addison-Wesley


  • Wakefield, J.C. (1992). The concept of mental disorder: On the boundary between biological facts and social values. American Psychologist, 47, 373-388

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