How to define abnormality?

To assess and treat abnormal behaviour, it is important to be able to clearly define normal and abnormal behaviour and to have specific criteria for distinguishing one from the other.The word abnormality literally means ‘away from the normal’, implying some deviation from a clearly defined norm. In the case of physical illness, the norm is the  structural and functional integrity of the body, and the boundary between normal and abnormal is usually clear.On the psychological level, however, there is no agreed model of what normal functioning is.This leads to considerable disagreement about what is or is not normal.

Although different in detail, the socio cultural, historical and situational definitions are based around the idea that what is normal or abnormal depends very much on the context in which the behaviour occurs.We will emphasise deviation from the norms of a particular society as  a method of defining abnormality.The functional and medical definitions focus on the idea that behaviour is abnormal when it is maladaptive.

Abnormal behaviour as deviation from societal norms

The word ‘ab’ stands for ‘away from’. Thus, ‘abnormal’ stands for ‘away from the rule or standard’. One approach to defining abnormality is to adopt a culturally relativist position: behaviour is abnormal only if it departs from the expectations of the particular culture. This view was taken by Ullmann and Krasner (1975), who argued that the behaviour of a Nazi concentration camp commander should be considered normal because he was operating successfully within his social and cultural group.Although his behaviour may be repulsive to us, this is only because we have judged him according to our own set of values.We can therefore still call his behaviour ‘normal’.

If we accept the view that behaviour that is normal is the same thing as behaviour that is socially acceptable, and that one set of values is as good as any other set of values, this  means that the role of the rapists would be simply to make people conform to the norms and values of their own society.Many people feel that this approach is unacceptable because some forms of behaviour are, in fact, better for us than others. People who argue against the cultural relativist view say that it is possible to think of a society as being sick, so that people conforming to the norms of that society would then be considered abnormal.

Another problem with the culturally relativist position arises from the fact that many contemporary societies are multicultural.While such societies frequently allow awide range of ideas and behaviours, it is difficult to imagine a society where extremely different cultural groups could live together.

Abnormal behaviour as functionally maladaptive behaviour

Anapproach that is generally accepted as a more satisfactory way of defining abnormality takes the view that behaviour is abnormal if it operates against the well being of the person orgroup.Behaviour is abnormal if it is maladaptive, in the sense that it interferes with the person’s functioning or growth, or causes the person extreme distress.Most forms of mental illness have these features. Behaviour can also be considered maladaptive if it operates against the long-term welfare of the whole group. Many forms of criminal behaviour have no obvious adverse effects on the person carrying out the behaviour, but do hurt other people.

As with most definitions, there are examples that do not fit the definition clearly. For example, a very successful businessman sends all his competitors into bankrupt cyand poverty.We tend to accept this behaviour, provided that the businessman sticks to the rule softhe society. While the definition of abnormal behaviouras functionally maladaptive is probablythe best definition available, it does have its limitations.Because there is no clear-cut way of defining health, as there often is with physical abnormality, the society’s standards help determine the values we impose on people and how these are applied in the definition of abnormal behaviour.

Personal Distress and Abnormality

In this criteria one would look at the person’s subjective [internal] feelings rather than their [external] behaviour. They may feel unhappy, depressed and agitated.They may be unable to concentrate or sleep. They may hide these feelings from others and their behaviour may appear normal. There may be the “Smiling Depression” where an individual is very depressed but hides that depression from family and friends.Often the first that his family know of the depression is when he attempts to kill himself.

Abnormality as dysfunction

Abnormality is considered to be equivalent to mal adaptive behaviour where the individual is unable to cope with or adjust to the environmental demands placed on him.Thus, the individual may not be able to carry out his daily activities properly or may not be productive.This perspective is commonly used in clinical assessments but, is essentially negative and does not look at optimal utilisation of resources.

Abnormality as danger

Here, abnormal behaviour is defined as that which is dangerous to the individual or other people. However, some researchers have contended that it is not always so. People with anxiety, depression or even bizarre thinking do not pose any immediate danger to themselves or other people .

Abnormality as immaturity

Thus, the abnormal are immature. This definition clearly rests on the cultural view of maturity and immaturity. It,of course,is all the more difficult to define what is ‘appropriate’ or ‘mature’.

Rosenhan and Seligman (1989) propose seven major features of abnormalities that appear in abnormal behaviour as opposed to normal behaviour. The more of these features that are possessed by the individual, the more likely they are to be considered abnormal.

Suffering: Most abnormal individuals (such as those suffering with anxiety disorders) report that they are suffering.However normal people can suffer at times in their lives and some abnormal individuals, such as those with personality disorders, treat others badly but do not appear to suffer themselves

 Maladaptiveness: Maladaptive behaviour is behaviour that prevents an individual from achieving major life goals; from having fulfilling relationships with others or working effectively(for instance an a grophobic will not venture out of the house due to fear).

Vividnessandunconventionality: Vivid and unconventional behaviour is relatively unusual. It is behaviour that differs substantially from the way in which you would expect normal people to behave in similar situations. However there are many people who behave in this way that are not deemed to be abnormal.

Unpredictability and loss of control: With most people, you normally predict what they will do in known situations. In contrast, abnormal behaviour is often highly unpredictable and uncontrolled and inappropriate for the situation.

Irrationality and incomprehensibility: One of the characteristics of abnormal behaviour is that there appears to be no good reason why the person should choose to behave in that way.

Observerdiscomfort: Our social behaviour is governed by a number of unspoken rules about behaviour, such as the way we maintain eye contact or personal space.

When others break these rules we experience discomfort. But this does not necessarily indicate abnormal behaviour, for instance different cultures may well have different social rules about behaviour.

Violation ofmoral and ideal standards: When moral standards are violated, this behaviour may be judged to be abnormal