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What is Normal? How Does One Define Abnormal in Psychology? Perspectives in Abnormal Psychology Defined

Updated on April 27, 2013

Abnormal Psychology

How do we define what is normal and what is abnormal?
How do we define what is normal and what is abnormal? | Source


Psychology is a varried and interesting field. There are many different paths within this field. Some paths such as Industrial and Organisational Psychology are business orriented. Psychology is related to advertising and marketing, education and learning, and myriad other areas. The most well known applications of Psychology are in mental health. It is the field of mental health in which the subject of Abnormal Psychology often leads the discussion. The following discussion intends to answer the questions of "what is Abnormal Psychology?" and "what are the perspectives (schools) of psychology that study Abnormal Psychology?"

What is Abnormal Psychology?

No examination of psychology, behavior, personality and mental functioning would be complete without delving into the question of what defines the behaviors of an individual as normal and divides this normality from those behaviors which are considered abnormal. The question though of what distinguishes normal behavior from abnormal behavior is not simple and the separation of the two is not easily defined. Behavior which is deemed normal and acceptable in one setting, time or place can be horrendously inappropriate in another. To understand the divide between normality and abnormality we must understand the context created by the combinations of those elements which are unique to the individual exhibiting the behavior and the culture climate and environment in which that behavior is performed by the individual.

Different Behaviors at Different Times

The earliest descriptions of abnormal behavior were drawn from religious ideology and simplistic biological concepts (Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). Though centuries ago spiritual concepts may have dictated what was thought to be normal or abnormal the passage of time has altered not only the bases for how normality and abnormality are defined but also which behaviors are defined as normal and abnormal (Hansell & Damour, 2008; Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). What defines behavior as normal or abnormal is largely a matter of sociocultural context (Hansell & Damour, 2008). According to Nevid (2005) “taking a snapshot of current knowledge in abnormal psychology is like trying to capture a moving target.” (pg. 5). The accumulation of new information produces change in our understanding of the concepts of normality which leads to new research which ultimately leads again to the gathering of new information and a change in understanding ( Hansell & Damour, 2008; Nevid, 2005). The definitions separating what is normal and abnormal have evolved throughout the years, due to such changes, leaving the spiritual concepts behind and developing a scientific foundation supporting a few theoretical models (Hansell & Damour, 2008; Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009).

Perspectives of Psychology

These changes occurred through the development of major theoretical concepts which describe different perspectives on the nature of behavior, humanity and the development of personality (Hansell & Damour, 2008; Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009).The first of these perspectives is the psychoanalytic model which was established by Sigmund Freud (Feist & Feist, 2009; Hansell & Damour, 2008; Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). The psychoanalytic perspective evolved as other theorist such as Adler, Jung and Horney challenged many of Freud's concepts and developed their own (Feist & Feist, 2009). At the same time other theorist, believing that psychoanalysis dealt too strongly with concepts hidden within the dark a murky recesses of the mind which could not be studied scientifically developed the behaviorist perspective (Feist & Feist, 2009). Other branches of psychology were spawned as well, each one viewing human nature, behavior and personality in a different yet complimentary way (Feist & Feist, 2009; Hansell & Damour, 2008; Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009). Each of these perspectives helped to alter the way that abnormal behavior is defined not only between professional psychologist but also within popular cultural as well (Hansell & Damour, 2008; Meyer, Chapman & Weaver, 2009).

The Intersection of Factors

Just as the cultural and historical context is important in understanding what defines abnormal behavior so too is the context of the individual person. No two people are exactly alike. To understand an individual's behavior one has to take into account psychosocial, biological medical and other factors which are specific to that individual. Many theories within psychology center around the effect of an individual's social life in influencing first how he or she perceives themselves and secondly how he or she behaves (Feist & Feist, 2009; Hansell & Damour, 2008). Advancements in the study of biology, genetics and neuroscience have increased our understanding of how certain behaviors can be partially the result of biological factors (Hansell & Damour, 2008). No behavior is the result of any of these factors alone. In order to truly understand the individual's behavior, whether abnormal or normal, it should be understood that the behavior is the result of the intersection of each of these myriad factors and the context of the specific situation (Hansell & Damour, 2008).


Biological factors including a person's genetic predispositions, his or her physiology, and the medications which they use establish the unique elements of that individual which combined with the social and cultural environment in which they live helps to determine the context in which their behaviors should be viewed in order to determine the normality or abnormality of that individual's behavior. Understanding the context of the behavior is the only way to begin to determine whether the behavior is normal or abnormal. Contexts of the situation and all of it's interconnecting properties lead us to a more complete understanding of the action itself. Being able to identify actions as normal or abnormal within that given context is the fundamental goal of studying abnormal psychology.


Feist, J and Feist, G (2009). Theories of Personality (7th ed.). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.

Hansell, J and Damour, L (2008). Abnormal Psychology (2nd ed.). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.

Meyer, R Chapman, L and Weaver, C(2009). Case Studies in Abnormal Behavior (8th ed). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.

Nevid, J. S. (2005, December). Update on abnormal psychology. PTN - Psychology Teacher Network. pp. 5-7. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

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© Copyright 2012. Wesley Meacham- This article is copyright protected and is the property of Wesley Meacham. All images in this article, unless otherwise stated, are the property of Wesley Meacham. Please do not copy this article in whole or in part without giving credit to the original author.


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    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      This is a complex subject and you've summarized it well with cultural and biological factors, among others. No wonder psychiatrists need such in depth and continual study!