Abnormal Psychology; Defining Abnormality

Abnormal Psychology: Assignment 1- Defining abnormality Defining abnormal behaviour is one of the most difficult and provocative subjects within the field of abnormal psychology as there are a range of methodologies you can use to define abnormalities. Abnormality is a behaviour or condition that strays from what society views as normal and appropriate, consequently causing distress or harm to oneself or those around them.
Due to the fact that society has changed through history when defining abnormality, we are now able to define abnormalities using many different scientific and non-scientific approaches. However despite the fact that abnormal behaviour can be defined in more than one way, all have their limitations; therefore generally psychologists will use a combination of the following methods when defining abnormalities. Statistical infrequency is one model used to define abnormal behaviour; abnormalities are defined by how often a certain type of behaviour occurs.
How the majority of people act are usually classed as normal whereas possessing qualities and traits that are uncommon or rare are usually classed as abnormal. Despite the word abnormal invoking a feeling of negativity, displaying abnormal behaviour is not always viewed as a negative, for example the average human being would not be able to run 100 metres as quick as Usain Bolt as that kind of skill is statistically infrequent therefore according to this particular model he possesses an abnormal skill but would not be classed as having a mental disorder or in need of treatment.

The major strength when using this model of defining abnormalities is that it is not subject to personal bias as the standards are set and based wholly on statistics and frequencies; how common certain behaviour is and how often it occurs.
However there are many limitations when using this model, as mentioned above there are many abnormal traits that are statistically infrequent but socially desirable such as being ambidextrous, but according to this model they would be classed as having a mental disorder or in need of treatment which is not the case due to the fact they have an uncommon ability, furthermore there are abnormal traits whist being a statistically frequent type of behaviour they are socially undesirable such as depression.
Another flaw is the fact that the infrequency of some behaviours differ culturally and sub-culturally as certain behaviours are socially acceptable in some cultures but not in others, also within certain cultures there maybe differences. In some African cultures being able to speak to the dead or hearing voices may be statistically infrequent but displaying these kinds of traits are viewed as a blessing therefore socially desirable whereas in the U.
K if you professed to be able to speak with dead people, hearing voices or receiving messages from god you would definitely raise concerns with regards to their mental state as this kind of behaviour is statistically infrequent and socially undesirable. One way to define abnormalities is a ‘Deviation social norms’. Deviation derives from the word deviant and this is defined as irregular or unusual behaviour, social norms are the standards of acceptable behaviour set by us and society around us.
Therefore deviating from the social norm is an individual or individuals who act out of character in accordance to the social norms set by society. A simple example of deviating from the social norm is rudeness or lack of politeness. Politeness is fundamental when interacting and communicating with each other positively; similarly somebody who is rude is therefore behaving in a deviant way as they are unable to interact with others according to what society expects.
However as our culture also defines our social norms within society, likewise the norms we value may not be socially accepted within another culture. A good illustration of this is the contrast of social norms is the United Kingdom and places in the United Arab Emirates like Dubai, regarding public displays of affection. In the U. K we have a more relaxed opinion of public displays of affection; to a certain extent of course, whilst in Dubai it is socially unacceptable even criminal to publicly display affection even in an environment we may deem as socially acceptable such as the beach.
One of the most predominant limitations is that defining abnormalities in this way may be susceptible to abuse, as social norms change through history. What may have been acceptable 50 years ago may not be acceptable now and vice versa, for instance in the case of being pregnant out of wedlock in the 1950’s, many women were sectioned and treated for a mental illness, whereas nowadays it is deemed socially acceptable to engage in sex and procreate before marriage without any reprisals or threat of institutionalisation.
However if we were to define abnormal behaviour with the single model of deviating from the social norm, professionals could in turn label everyone that does not conform as mentally ill which is not always the case. ( Szasz 1974, cited in Cardwell and Flanagan, 2008, page 178) Additionally another limitation of defining abnormalities using this characteristic is cultural relativism. As we know the process of defining a deviation from the social norm is majorly influenced by our culture as it is our culture that defines what a particular norm is.
For example a psychologist from the United Kingdom may have a diagnosis for an individual displaying abnormal behaviour, such as walking the streets with a gun meanwhile a psychologist in the United States of America may not. Every culture has their own social norms and within those cultures there are sub-cultures that would have their own social norms therefore the cultural relativity; whether it be cross or sub-culturally has to be taken into account when diagnosing somebody’s symptoms as abnormal.
Furthermore in the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual) there is a section that describes certain patterns of behaviour and syndromes that are specific to certain areas and places around the world. Psychologists call this ‘culture- bound syndromes’ which means that there are no universal standards when labelling individuals as abnormal, as disorders vary in conjunction to where you and the disorder originate. There is another way to define abnormal behaviour another model is ‘Failure to function adequately’.
Failure to function adequately from the sufferer’s point of view manifests itself when they are unable to cope with the daily demands of life such as working, interacting with others meaningfully, therefore labelling their own behaviour as abnormal; resulting in an individual seeking medical attention. David Rosenhan & Martin Seligman (1989) stated that there are a various features of abnormality other than suffering and maladaptiveness. Other features are unconventional behaviour, observer discomfort, violation of moral standards, loss of control and irrationality.
However just displaying one of the above features is of no great significance, it is the presence of several that would define abnormal behaviour. (www. integratedsociopsychology. net) There are further limitations to this model when defining abnormality, as the patient or professional has to recognise the failure to function adequately is apparent, which is opinion based and may differ. For instance an individual may think their maladaptive abnormal behaviour is perfectly normal and they are coping fine, meanwhile not being able to comprehend their inability to cope, sequentially others may find their behaviour very distressing.
However someone displaying adaptive, abnormal habits such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder whilst not posing a threat to themselves or society could still be classified as being abnormal due to unconventional behaviour. Showing signs of distress, irrationality and maladaptive behaviour would usually result in being classed as abnormal but this may not always be the case; for example showing signs of distress such as being depressed may be classed as abnormal behaviour but the individual may feel fine even happy.
Again when showing signs of irrationality, you may be causing no harm to professing that you may be Jesus but irrational thoughts about death and killing for instance would raise concern, in turn maladaptive behaviour can be demonstrated when an individual self-harms or mutilates we would class them as portraying abnormal behaviour whereas smoking can be seen as self-harming but not enough criterion to be classed as mentally ill due to maladaptive tendencies.
Cultural relativity plays a crucial part in this feature when defining abnormalities as each culture functions in different ways, hence the failure to function needs to be assessed according to their culture. For example, in the United Kingdom dogs are viewed as family members even as companions and the harming of, especially eating a dog is a criminal offense punishable by law. Therefore this behaviour would be considered abnormal; whereas in China, dogs are eaten as part of a meal and keeping a dog in the home as a pet would be viewed as abnormal behaviour in China.
The standard of one culture cannot be used to judge another as the symptoms and diagnosis are dependent on the cultural ideals and standards upheld by the individual patient. Alternatively another approach used to define abnormal behaviour is ‘Deviating from ideal mental health’. This model uses the similar approach used when detecting physical illness, when diagnosing a physical illness physician’s look for signs of physical health such as regular heartbeat; normal body temperature etc. , so an absence of one of these signs would indicate illness.
In 1958, Marie Jahoda through research and secondary evidence developed a theory that if physical illness can be detected by the absence of the standard ‘signs’ of health then alternatively mental health could be also. (en. wikipedia. org) The characteristics she identified as defining someone as being of ‘Ideal Mental Health’ included having an accurate view of reality, integration and ability to deal with stressful situations, capability to grow, develop and adjust, also being able to function at work and hold positive relations even the ability to love.
In view of this model it shows that the absence of one the above criteria would indicate an abnormality even a potential mental condition. With all models there are limitations, according to this particular model the majority of people in general would be classed as abnormal or suffering a mental disorder of some kind as most people lack one of the criterion. Marie Jahoda did say that it was the ‘Ideal’ mental health so it would be difficult to gauge the level of abnormality depending on the amount of criterion an individual maybe lacking.
For example someone could be lacking the criterion of personal growth and actualisation resulting in a lack of drive and ambition, but that individual may be completely happy even satisfied regarding the situation; according to Jahoda they would be still viewed as mentally ill rather than just unambitious and lacking motivation. Despite Marie Jahoda using a similar technique used to define physical illness, physical illness have physical causes such as a cough due to contracting a virus whereas being diagnosed as having a mental illness, atients and psychologists are not always presented with physical signs as most mental illnesses derive from trauma in life, for that reason the diagnosis of a mental illness cannot be identified in exactly the same way as a physical illness. Cultural relativism is a compelling limitation as different cultures have different ways of expressing their ‘Ideal’ mental health.
For example, according to Jahoda an absence of the criterion of self-actualization would indicate the presence of a mental disorder but that is because the western world strives for individuality and acclaim, however some tribal communities in Africa and the Amazon act as a collective and concentrate on working as a group and sharing every aspect of daily life, if the Jahoda criterion was measured against an Amazonian tribe they would be deemed as mentally ill rather than being a caring tightknit community, the cross cultural differences are too much of an dominating factor.
The different models described all differ in perspectives. Failure to function adequately focuses on the individual’s sense of abnormal functioning, deviating from social norm concentrates on other people’s perspective and deviating from ideal mental health is an amalgamation of the first two models without taking into account subjective feelings.
The classification and definition of abnormal behaviour has many successful approaches but as a single model is not adequate enough to correctly define abnormalities, although each model definitely gives a good indication, it’s the combination of the described models commonly known as the multi-criteria approach that successfully aids psychologists in correctly defining and diagnosing abnormal behaviour correctly in a patient.
References Cardwell, R. Flanagan, C. (2008) Psychology AS: The Complete Companion. Oxford University Press: Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP. Accessed 15. 10. 12 http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Marie_Jahoda Accessed 21. 10. 12 http://www. integratedsociopsychology. net/Defining_Abnormality/7’FeaturesofAbnormality’-DavidRosenhan&M. html Accessed 16. 10. 12

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