ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Education and Science»
  • Psychology & Psychiatry

Abnormal Psychology - An Overview

Updated on September 9, 2012

Abnormal Psychology


Abnormal psychology is a division of psychology is concentrated on the detection, understanding and treatment of psychopathology. Psychopathology is unexpectedly common: in a study by the World Health Organization it was revealed that 24% of people visiting medical doctors in primary care settings had diagnosable mental disorders, while another 10% had severe symptoms of mental disorders (Hewstone, 2005).

To comprehend abnormal psychology, it is vital to define abnormal. Defining abnormality is deceivingly challenging. When people are asked to define “abnormal behavior” the general consensus of a definition is that it is behavior that happens irregularly, that is strange or eccentric, sometimes causes suffering or is dangerous. This definition is reasonable for some types of abnormal behavior but none of these details are adequate. One useful way to define abnormal behavior is to see if the behavior causes impairment in a person’s life (Cherry, 2011). When one thinks about abnormal psychology, one should not just concentrate on the difference between abnormal behavior and normal behavior, but also observe the degree of suffering or disturbance that the behavior maybe causing. Also when defining abnormal behavior, one must take into consideration the context that surrounds a person’s behavior. Context includes a person’s culture, gender, age, and environment. Understanding the circumstances surrounding abnormal behavior is crucial when deciding if behavior is abnormal.

A Brief History

Over the course of human history there have been many ideas of what makes a person exhibit abnormal behavior. For the most part, these theories can be categorized into three different groups: mystical/supernatural, scientific/medical or humanitarian (Snitchler, 2004). Theories that believe that psychopathology is the outcome of a possession by some evil spirit are categorized as being mystical/supernatural, while theories that believe that there are natural causes to abnormal behavior is classified as scientific/medical. The third category, humanitarian, sees abnormal behavior as the result of poor living conditions or cruelty (Snitchler, 2004).

Skulls have been discovered with holes drilled in. Some of these skulls date back to 8,000 B.C. This procedure is known as trephining and some scientist hypothesize that these holes were drilled in order to releasing evil spirit. During Greek and Roman civilizations there was a change from a mystical/supernatural outlook regarding abnormal behavior to a scientific/medical view. The basis of a systematic methodology to psychology is believed to have originated with the Greek philosopher, Hippocrates (Snitchler, 2004). He hypothesized that there was “four humors” or bodily fluids that were in charge of both an individual’s mental and physical health. These four fluids were blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. A change in any of these fluids could explain changes in a person’s behavior and personality (Hansell, 2008).

During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries people with mental health issues continued to receive poor treatment. But during these time periods such individuals as Vincenzo Chiarugi, Jean-Baptiste Pussin, and Phillipe Pinel worked to raise awareness about the treatment of the mentally ill (Snitchler, 2004). Pinel is considered to be a main player in the crusade for the humanitarian treatment of the mentally ill. He stressed observance, case histories, and treating patients with kindness and sensitivity.

During the same time in the United States, Benjamin Rush was instituting a more scientific approach to psychology and instituted great reform in the mental health systems. He advocated the separation of non-violent patients from violent ones, better ventilation in hospitals and arrangements for exercise and recreation programs for patients (Snitchler, 2004). But over time, the emphasis on moral treatment was forgotten until 1841 when Dorthea Dix initiated a movement to arouse public awareness to the conditions of the mentally ill (Hansell, 2008).

The last two centuries have seen great improvements in the how the mentally ill are treated. In the United States, the government passed many bills that ordered funding for the improvements in mental hospitals and research. For example, Congress approved the Mental Health Study Act of 1955 and asked for “an objective, thorough, nationwide analysis and reevaluation of the human and economic problems of mental health” (Minnesota Psychiatric Society, 2011). From this study, great reforms happened in the treatment of the mentally ill. Patients were no longer locked away for their entire lives; patients were released from their imprisonment and allowed to live among the communities in half-way houses, group homes, and/or on their own.


There are a many different viewpoints in abnormal psychology, there are some professionals that use only one single perspective, but many use features from multiple standpoints so as to better recognize the symptoms and treat mental illness (Cherry, 2011).

The biological perspective emphasizes the biological causes of psychopathy. This viewpoint sees the cause of mental disorders as being genetically inherited, related to chemical imbalances, physical disorders or infections. Treatments often include prescribed pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy. Another viewpoint in abnormal psychology is the humanistic perspective. In this view, abnormal behavior can be attributed to problems that may arise with self-interest due to unhealthy and indifferent relationships. Treatment in this perspective centers on reestablishing positive self-regard through healthy relationships.

The sociocultural theoretical model of abnormal psychology believes that mental illness are genuine, but are influenced by social institutions, pressures or stress. For example, sociocultural psychologists have emphasized the role that discrimination, poverty, and unemployment plays in abnormal behavior (Hansell, 2008). Sociocultural psychologists stress that social change is the most effective treatment for mental illness. Unlike the sociocultural perspective, the psychodynamic approach focuses on the role that unconscious thoughts, feelings and motives play in abnormal behavior. Also tied in with this approach are childhood experiences and emotional conflicts. Treatment in the psychodynamic approach includes interventions that help patients achieve awareness of these conflicts.

The behavioral approach to abnormal behavior is based on the belief that most behavior is learned. These theorists focus on three different types of learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning and modeling/social learning and the behavioral approach to treatment includes the extinction of abnormal behaviors and learning more appropriate behaviors through different learning techniques. The existential approach explains abnormal behavior as the inability to accept responsibility for creating one’s own meaning in life. Treatment with the existential approach includes facing responsibility.

The cognitive theory of abnormal behavior believes that psychopathology stems from thoughts and beliefs. Treatment from this school of thought includes changing the way one thinks into more constructive and realistic thoughts. In the family systems perspective, theorists believe that unhealthy family relations or dynamics are the cause of abnormal behavior. Treatment within this theory includes family therapy that includes efforts to adjust the family relations.


Although there is no clear cut definition of abnormal behavior, a professional must be careful to consider the circumstances of the individual exhibiting the behavior and their culture, before pronouncing that the behavior is abnormal. This professional can use one perspective or multiple perspectives in order to help treat the individual that is showing psychopathology.


Cherry, K. (2011). What is abnormal psychology?. Retrieved from

Hansell, J. & Damour, L. (2008). Abnormal psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Hewstone, M., Fincham, F., & Foster, J. (2005). Psychology . Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell .

Minnesota Psychiatric Society. (2011). Detailed History of Mental Health. Retrieved from

Snitchler, E. (2004). History of abnormal psychology. Retrieved from


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.