Defining The Concepts Of Normality And Abnormality Psychology Essay

Normality and abnormality are two sides in which can only be defined in relation to one another. In order to define each and without assumption, psychological conception of abnormality and its different criteria is used to propose the definitions of normality and abnormality with key areas that should be taken into consideration when defining what is normal and what is not.

The first is known as deviation from the average or statistical infrequency which

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represents the literal sense of abnormality and takes into consideration what behaviour is

typical or usual and what behaviour is common or rare. A definition of abnormal or

statistically rare would be seen as infrequent behaviour and unacceptable and a definition

of normal would be seen as average behaviour and more acceptable. It is used in

conjunction with how the majority or minority behave to what relation of normality they

are perceived.

This Theory however holds certain flaws regarding the statistical criterion and does not

establish behaviour that is desirable or acceptable or undesirable or unacceptable, for

example people such as Picasso and Ted Bundy are both statistically rare and according to

the criterion are both abnormal, but Picasso’s behaviour would be much more Desirable or

acceptable than Ted Bundy’s, so In light of this, statistical provides an insufficient or

inaccurate way of defining abnormality.

Abnormality as deviation from the norm suggests what behaviour is acceptable in

occurrence with society and its social norms. Social norms can be described as a set of

unwritten rules that are obtained through family and social conditioning throughout our

lives. It can be determined differently by each individual dependent upon age, culture,

gender, historical context or the situation or context in which the behaviour is placed.

Social norms in relation to age or developmental norms dictate and are subject to

conditions such as what is perceived as normal amongst children themselves but more so

amongst adults and children, examples of this include that it is acceptable as a baby to be

breast fed but not as accepted as a child at the age of 8. Another is a baby wearing nappies

in comparison to a grown man wearing nappies whether it is in public or in his own


Cultural differences can range from what is accepted and not accepted in one cultural

setting to another. For example many cultures follow different religions and may consist

of such beliefs for example the slaughter of animals which to some can be a condemned

abnormal act of behaviour and in others where sex before marriage is acceptable to others

it can be equally as condemned and abnormal.

Situation and context in relation to abnormal behaviour gives the example for what type of

behaviour is accepted where and when and the reasons behind it, for example if a person

shoots another during a war or battle and is representing his or her country, this is seen as

normality, but if a person opens fire without any due cause in a public place and causes

death to another person this type of behaviour is seen as abnormal.

Gender is what is acceptable amongst male and female and in line with social norms. For

example a women posing topless in a newspaper is seen by most as complying within the

social rules but too many if a man did the same and exposed his genitals in the same way

it could be condemned as not constricting towards the social norms and could be

perceived abnormal in comparison to the women for exploiting themselves in exactly the

same way. Other Gender Roles such as career choices or sexual preferences can also be

example within the gender types of social norms.

Abnormality as deviation from ideal mental health identifies characteristics and abilities

which people should posses in order for them to be considered normal. In later times

Jahonda (1958) identified several ways in which abnormality and normality can be

defined and in more recent times Rosenhan and Seligman (1989) proposed a list of seven

references that would appear as an abnormality and are contributors towards abnormal


Jahonda Suggested

.The absence of mental health

.The ability to introspect

.The capacity for growth, development and self actualisation

.Integration of all persons processes and attributes

.The ability to cope with stress


.Seeing the world as it really is

.Environmental mastery

Rosenhan and Seligman suggest

.Suffering: A person who is suffering with anxiety, depression etc

. Maladaptiveness: To pursue and fulfil achievements within their own lives, to conform adapt and adjust within social norms environmentally and socially.

.Vividness and unconventionally: A way a person behaves in comparison to how you would expect normal people to behave in a similar situation

.Unpredictability and loss of control: An inappropriate show of behaviour for a particular situation that may not be expressed in the same way as a normal person

.Irrationally and incomprehensibility: No Obvious or valid Signs in which a person displays Abnormal behaviour

.Observer discomfort:

.Violation of moral and ideal standards: Behaviour that is displayed in spite of violating any moral or ideal standards.

Whilst some of these references may be contributing factors to a persons state of mental

health, it is unfair to suggest that a person who is described and or showing signs of any of

the above as being abnormal, without tying in any social or society backgrounds. An ideal

state of mental health is essentially a value judgement which reflects an ideal state of

being human.

Sally is aged 37 and very successful. She has a job in the city, a top of the range car and a

penthouse suite, which she keeps in immaculate condition. Sally is not married and has no

children. Recently Sally has started to avoid social situations stating she does not feel

‘quite right’. Whenever she does go out with friends, she insists that she will only drink

out of her ‘own’ glass.

In reaching a Diagnoses and making reference to the DSM 1V Sally’s abnormal behaviour

is indicated from the avoidance and stress related feeling about being in social

environments. These types of concerns classifies her in the clinical syndrome group of

Anxiety Disorders such as obsessive -compulsive disorder or social phobias. She may be

potentially suffering with compulsive, disturbing or intrusive thoughts which have

caused her anxiety and has manifested itself in a compulsion act that she can only drink

from her own glass. This compulsion is performed so that her anxiety may be reduced or


From this Sally is at risk of adopting maladaptive traits and her interaction with the

outside world could be become limited. Whist Sally does not show signs of any medical

conditions in relation to her mental disorder, there are a number of psychosocial and

environmental stressors which may contribute to her disorder, such as high work demands

and stress. However these do not constitute fully to a prognosis that she is suffering from a

full onset of OCD as she can still be seen as functioning well with mild symptoms.

Using a global assessment of functioning, Sally is at present showing moderate symptoms

of OCD as she shows moderate difficulties in social circles and there is no indication that

her career has become affected.

Explanations regarding sally’s prognosis can also help to be determined from four

psychological models of abnormality

Biological Model- also known as medical or clinical looks at factors such as genetic,

infection such as micro organisms, biochemistry and neuroanatomy. Sally’s high

demanding job can give her stress which can cause an abnormal in-balance. There could

be too much cortisol in her system which leads to her feelings of anxiety and jittery or

shaky hands etc. Social Phobia symptoms have been produced from her underlying

anxiety which has lead to OCD and possible genetic predisposition to anxiety or stress.

Inconsistency with results regarding basal ganglia e.g. Aylward (1996) found no

difference between OCD and non-OCD sufferers. If a person has suffered a brain or head

injury or have been diagnosed with a brain tumor prior to the OCD symptoms, there

has been sufficient evidence that has been linked to the development of OCD.

Some examples such as primary health related conditions have been associated with OCD

and therefore the biological model can be a useful guide as to why a person has developed

OCD symptoms and can be treated accordingly. It has found to be difficult to identify that

OCD is however connected genetically.

The Biological approach to the treatment of OCD would be to use drug therapy such as

anxiety pills that help to increase the levels of neurotransmitter serotonin. Common drugs

such as clomipramine and fluoxetine both work effectively by increasing the levels of

serotonin and helping the orbital frontal cortex to operate at more normal activity levels.

The Cognitive model which would suggest sally’s prognosis through her thought process

would suggest that sally’s perception is distorted due to her age, job prospects and

focusing on the wrong things. Irrational thoughts have manifested via obsession with

germs and being immaculate. Her social Phobias may be due to her network of peers

which may make her feel inferior thus causing more anxiety and being channelled through


A Cognitive Model shows lack of evidence supporting the view that OCD’s are a result of

poor socialization. Sher et al (1983) Patients who scored highly on a measure of

compulsive behaviour also showed a memory deficit for actions recently performed.

Davison & Neale (1994) Suggest that OCD patients are unable to distinguish between

reality and imagination.

Cognitive therapy is used in the form of helping a person suppress that irrational thoughts

and distorted perceptions. The therapy can be used either to remove any obsessive thought

from the person or assist in helping the person to process their thoughts in a different and

more constructive way by a different type of association. Through disengaging there

thought processes they will then reduce their behaviour through compulsion. An

additional technique known as habituation training(Franklin etal 2000) where a person is

asked to think about their obsessive thoughts as much as possible in order for them to

grasp the idea that if they deliberately think about their obsessions and will become less


Cognitive therapy is useful in helping people to become more aware of their obsessive

thought in order to manage their compulsions effectively. Cognitive therapy can become

more successful if it is linked together with either behavioural therapy or biological


The behavioural Model where abnormality is seen as a result of learning from the

environment suggests that sally has possibly been conditioned from her parents to be neat

and tidy and strive for high achievement, this has been reinforced and has manifested as

an obsession with high standards to the point where nobody can clean a cup like sally can.

Her behaviour is affected via becoming reclusive or social agoraphobia. These keeping up

of appearances may have caused her anxiety.

The behavioural method only focuses on a persons Compulsion and fails to establish

where and when the obsessive thoughts occurred, this can also be an inaccurate method as

some people have obsessive thoughts and no compulsive behaviour.

There are behavioural treatments and therapies that can help to reduce sally’s’ anxiety, a

most successful technique called exposure and response prevention. It can be used either

by flooding exposure where the anxiety induced will be very high or by systematic

desensitisation where exposure is kept gradual in order to keep the levels of anxiety low.

Patients will be exposed deliberately to objects or situations that will increase anxiety but

then must learn to resist a compulsive act with methods or ways that are assisted by the

therapist. ERP can be done either one to one or in group session and patients must try to

use these methods whilst away from therapy and practice for themselves whit in real life


Behavioral therapies are very effective, Baxter et al (1992) and Schwartz et al (1996) both

found that behavioral therapies not only reduces the symptoms but also brings about

changes in biochemical activity.

The Psychodynamic Model which results from the unconscious conflict within the psyche

and refers to the three aspects of personality to determine how you behave. Sally may be

feeling shameful or guilty and therefore her superego is in charge causing anxiety were at

the same time her ID is suggesting that everything in her life has to be immaculate. The

conflicts of the ID and superego lead to anxiety whilst the ego protects itself against

anxiety using defence mechanisms such as repression (Sigmund Freud)

The Psychodynamic approach linked to OCD is difficult to define as a successful model as

it make most of its references towards the what is going on in unconscious mind and

therefore relatively relates to a way of reducing anxiety and compulsions. It is also

difficult to experimentally test the idea of the unconscious motivation

Psychodynamic treatment of OCD is used to uncover the unconscious conflicts that have

occurred during the anal and phallic psychosexual stages of development (Freud). Dream

Analysis is a technique used that will help establish the root causes of the symptoms and

once conflicts have become unconscious that can then be analysed in order for the OCD to

disappear. Adler (1930) disagrees with Freud and believes OCD results from when

children are kept from developing a sense of competence especially if parents are too


In psychological terms there are no real definitions of defining what is normal and what is

not this is due to every individuals uniqueness and how differently society perceives what

is reality and what is not. However there are some highly accessible and constructive

methods of establishing a person state of mental health with many appropriate approaches

to succession of rehabilitation.


Pennington, D & Mcloughlin, J. (2008) AQA(B) Psychology for AS. Londaon: Hodder education.

Eysenck, M. (2002) Simply Psychology.East Sussex: Psychology Press.

Gross, R. (2005) Psychology The Science of mind and behaviour Fifth Edition.London: Hodder Arnold.[Accessed 28th March 2010][Accessed 27th March 2010][Accessed 25th march 2010]

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