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Defining Abnormality

Updated on March 7, 2013

1 - Deviation From The 'Ideal' Mental Health

Think about how people diagnose a physical illness. They look at different things that indicate that you're healthy for example, a normal body temperature, pulse, skin colour etc and see which things are abnormal or missing.

Marie Jahoda (1958) applied this same concept to mental illness by researching things that others had written about mental health and selecting categories that came up the most. She managed to isolate the following things as in indication of a healthy mental state:

  • Self-esteem - having a strong sense of identity.
  • Personal improvement - how the person develops themselves individually.
  • Being able to cope with stressful situations.
  • Autonomy - the extent to which the individual is independent.
  • Perception of reality - how accurately people perceive their own reality.
  • Coping in your environment - how well people form relationships, function in the workplace and adjust to new environments.

Supposedly, the absence of these 'normal' characteristics indicates that an individual has a mental disorder or is abnormal.

You can tell that he has a physical illness, but how could you go about diagnosing his mental health?
You can tell that he has a physical illness, but how could you go about diagnosing his mental health?

Problems With Definition 1

Can we all be perfect?

If you use all of this criteria to judge a persons mental health, the majority of us would be diagnosed as abnormal! Everyone has a degree to which they are abnormal, the criteria is ideal but not realistic.

You can't compare mental and physical health

Sure, you can look for the absence of health when trying to diagnose someone with a physical illness but that's because physical illnesses are usually caused by physical things like bacteria or a virus. However, mental disorders are usually the consequence of life experiences or psychological events and therefore it makes it very hard to diagnose someone with a potential mental illness in the same way you would someone with a physical illness.

This person would be considered rude or antisocial, but does that mean they have a mental disorder?
This person would be considered rude or antisocial, but does that mean they have a mental disorder?

2 - Anti-Social Behaviour and Deviation From Social Norms

This definition refers to the behaviour that a person displays being undesirable according to the majority of people within a society.

Any society has standards of behaviour that are usually adhered to by the members of said society.

Politeness is a common social norm, for example a person swearing at someone in a public place would be considered deviant or anti-social behaviour. People who act in such a way normally make it difficult for others to feel comfortable interacting with them and therefore they are considered abnormal.

Deviation from the social norms does not just include social etiquette though, serious and illegal issues, such as paedophilia, are also included in this definition.

In the past, these women may have been considered abnormal for going against the societies views!
In the past, these women may have been considered abnormal for going against the societies views!

Problems With Definition 2

Context and Degree

According to this definition, a person on a beach wearing very little clothing is considered normal but a person in a formal meeting wearing the same attire is considered abnormal and potentially mentally ill! There is a fine line between abnormal and eccentric behavior and this is what people (especially psychologists) find difficult to judge. There is a degree to which you can deviate from the social norm, for instance being rude and swearing at someone is not evidence of a mental illness unless it is a excessive and consistent behaviour and then it's considered pathological.
This is not a clear definition of abnormality because there are different degrees and contexts in which a person can act socially deviant.

Cultural Variation

Social norms are defined by a specific society or culture. The way that people in different cultures diagnose social deviance may be very different from one and other and some behaviour and syndromes only occur in certain cultures to begin with (culture-bound syndromes). Therefore it is very difficult to create a universal standard as to what abnormality is.


Over time social norms change. For instance homosexuality was considered socially unacceptable in the past but now it is completely acceptable. 50 years ago, anyone is Russia who disagreed with the state would be diagnosed as mentally ill and put into a mental institution! These people were not mentally ill just because they went against the attitude of the society that they lived in at the time. The problem with defining abnormality in this way is that it gives psychologists the ability to diagnose people who go beyond the bounds of widespread views as abnormal when this may not be the case at all.

3 - Failure To Cope In Everyday Life

This definition of abnormality is judged from the individuals point of view regarding how much they can cope with the tasks confronting them in their everyday life.

For example, someone with depression may be able to cope by going to work, eating, looking after children and doing necessary day-to-day tasks.

If the depression, or whatever disorder the person is suffering from, starts to prevent them from doing these things and effects their every day life then they may be considered 'abnormal'.

Problems With Definition 3:

Who decides?

Ultimately the only person who can judge whether you are coping with your every day life is yourself. This can be a problem because someone that may spend time with the person could feel as if that person is acting abnormal whereas the person themselves may feel that they are coping fine. For example, people who suffer from schizophrenia often don't realise that how they are acting may be distressing (or even in some cases dangerous) to the people around them. This leads to the question of who judges whether the person is abnormal or not? And can you truly trust someones judgement on their own abnormality?

Cultural Differences

Different cultures have different ideas of how their lives should be lived. If one persons idea of a 'normal' life is applied to different cultures then there will be lots of misdiagnosis's regarding peoples mental states. This may explain why more people who are from lower-class, non-white backgrounds are diagnosed with mental disorders - because they people that are diagnosing them are from a completely different culture/background themselves.

Which do you think is the most fitting definition for abnormality?

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