What is 'abnormal'?

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abnormal- deviating from the normal or average

The definition of the word abnormal is simple enough: deviating from the norm. However, applying this to psychology poses a complex problem: what is normal? Whose norm? For what age? For what culture? Some would simply classify what is "good" as normal and what is "bad" as abnormal, but this is a vague and narrow definition and brings up many of the same questions for the definition of "good" as does the definition for "normal". There are many more ways of determining a more objective reference point.

One way of defining abnormality is statistical deviation. Most human characteristics are nicely distributed along a smooth bell-shaped curve.

A standard bell curve

Those who stray too far from the average on this curve are then considered abnormal. This definition, however, has its problems. It does not recognize valuable derivations, such as genius, nor does it recognize common but maladaptive behavior like smoking and drinking 3. Nonetheless, this method is both objective and scientific.

A very simple idea that can be used to classify abnormal behavior is personal distress. Basically, if a person is content with their life, then they are of no concern to the mental health field 2a. However, if a person's thoughts or behaviors are causing them personal discomfort or unhappiness, then they will be considered abnormal.

The most common criterion for defining abnormality, however, is maladaptiveness. There are two aspects of maladaptive bahvior:

1. Maladaptive to one's self - inability to reach goals, to adapt to the demands of life and

2. Maladaptive to society - interferes, disrupts social group functioning. 2a

This type of definition allows much flexibility. It provides room for conforming behavior to society's norms as well as deviant behavior as long as it is not self-damaging. It makes abnormal the relative term it needs to be, dependent upon each individual's life and circumstances. There are certain catergories of behavior that suggest the presence of psychological disorders which are, in one way or another, maladaptive in that they threaten the well-being of the individual. These catergories include long periods of discomfort, impaired functioning, bizarre behavior, and disruptive behavior.1

Long Periods of Discomfort

Given, everyone experiences some kind of psychological discomfort during their life. This could be anything as simple as worrying about a calculus test to grieving the death of a loved one. This distress, however, is related to a real, related, or threatened events and passes away with time. When such distressing feelings, however, persist for an extended period of time and seem to be unrelated to events surrounding the person, they would be considered abnormal and could suggest a psychological disorder.1

Impaired Functioning

Here, again, there must be made a distinction between simply a passing period of inefficiency and prolonged inefficiency which seems unexplainable. For instance, a very brilliant person who consistently fails classes or someone constantly changing jobs for no reason.

Bizarre Behavior

There are many things people do that others would find strange. The various piercings today's younger generation chooses to get and their style of dress may seem bizarre to adults, but their motivations are not hard to understand, which keeps them from being considered clinically abnormal. Bizarre behavior that has no rational basis, however, seems to indicate that the individual is confused. The psychoses frequently bring on hallucinations (baseless sensory perceptions) or delusions (beliefs which are patently false yet held as truth by the individual).1

Disruptive Behavior

Disruptive behavior means impulsive, apparently uncontrollable behavior that disrupts the lives of others or deprives them of their human rights on a regular basis. This type of behavior is characteristic of a severe psychological disorder. An example of this is the antisocial personality disorder.

All of these types of behavior are maladaptive because they directly affect the well-being of the individual and those around them, and block the growth and fulfillment of the individual's potential.1

Some related links:

What is "Normal" Internet Use?
A short essay defining abnormal behavior (dead)
Antisocial personality disorder and the characteristics of abnormality (dead)

1999 Katrina Spoor