Psychology is the scientific study of human behaviour and the human mind. Abnormal psychology is one branch of psychology that addresses the description, causes, and treatment of patterns of abnormal behaviour. These behaviours are often suggestive of individuals living with one or more mood, depressive, or psychotic disorders that are causes of distress and impairment.
Defining Abnormal Behaviour
Perhaps the most important point of discussion concerns abnormal behaviour itself. What is abnormal behaviour? And how do we define it? Questions such as these have been the basis for much debate and discussion between clinicians and experts in the field, and a review of the literature would show that there are no simple answers to these questions. Most clinicians would, however, argue that despite room for discussion and disagreement one can yet arrive at a suitable definition of the term abnormal psychology.
Abnormal behavior is not only influenced by external factors but also by behaviour. These are behaviours typically deemed socially unacceptable (they violate social norms), unusual, based upon faulty perceptions and interpretations of reality (hallucinations and delusions), maladaptive (self-defeating and that often leads to unhappiness rather than self-fulfillment), impairs daily functioning, dangerous (to both oneself as well as to others), and that cause distress. These characteristics encapsulate how many clinicians view abnormal behaviour.
Challenges in Defining Abnormal Psychology
There is little doubt that when one attempts to determine what constitutes abnormal behavior there is going to be a social and cultural subjectivism involved. If, for instance, abnormal behaviour is thought to violate social norms then whose social norms is it said to violate? Which society? And although we could say that a society is a collection of individuals who are defined by their language, religious practices, and ethnic diversity, societies are often fluid and constantly changing. What would be deemed normal behaviour today might not be considered to be at some point in the future. If, moreover, we define abnormal behaviour as being “unusual” then who gets to define what is unusual versus what is normal? Is it also not possible for someone to behave in an unusual way but not be clinically “abnormal”?
Despite these questions and insights, “normal” behaviour from which abnormal behaviour is said to deviate is usually classified by a consensus of what is considered to be normal for a group.
But other factors are far more clear cut. Perhaps less challenging to determine as constituting abnormal behaviour would be that which is dangerous and harmful to others. Certain vindictive behaviours on behalf of an individual who appears unable to comprehend moral rights and wrongs might result in psychiatrists diagnosing him with Anti-Social Personality Disorder. Behaviour that is harmful to oneself such as the regular cutting of one’s own flesh could be suggestive of Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder. Acting out in a way that is self-defeating and maladaptive through, for instance, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol or splurging all of one’s cash on a night out at the casino is also easy to identify as abnormal behaviour.
Few would doubt that it would be unusual for a restaurant patron to stand up and start chatting passionately to a painting on the wall. Such behaviour would certainly not be deemed “normal” and it is likely that the individual is experiencing visual and/or auditory hallucinations typical of psychotic disorders like Schizophrenia, Schizophreniform, and Schizoaffective disorders. In at least in these several cases, one can be relatively certain when he or she observes behaviour that is indeed abnormal.
Factors that Influence Our View of Behaviour
As noted, there are social constructs that ultimately influence how we define something as normal versus abnormal. Public spaces, gender, age, and multicultural aspects are all significant influences in this decision. Society has certain expectations of how people should behave and conduct themselves in public spaces such as at train stations, in queues at bookstores, while browsing through shops at the mall, and even when walking on a public street. Individuals whose behaviours fall outside of these expected norms tend to become suspect.
Our sex is also a major factor given that it influences the way we are raised, our roles in life, how others respond to us, and how we are treated by society. We are socialized into traditional sex roles and with this come behaviours that are considered appropriate or inappropriate (generally the range is narrower for females than for males). There are still occupations that are traditionally viewed as male such as being an architect, a nuclear physicist, or a mathematician. It is not unheard of for a female to be working in one of these professions but it still strikes many as quite unusual when they do.
Third, there are cultural factors that wield power in our understanding of human behaviour. Culture can be defined as “shared learned behaviour which is transmitted from one generation to another for purposes of individual and societal growth, adjustment and adaptation.” These are scripts, lifestyles, beliefs, and traditions that individuals are brought up in, learn, and often embrace, and those who behave outside of these norms are viewed as odd. Western society has tended to become far more tolerant of certain groups of individuals although there remain many places in which behaving outside of the norms of a culture will result in acts of discrimination, isolation, and even violence.
A fourth and final factor has to do with age. Age plays a major role in our understanding of human behaviour because certain behaviours are deemed age-appropriate and others age-inappropriate. For example, few would think twice about a 14-year-old adolescent dying his hair lime green. It might be unusual, his parents might be angry, but few would suspect an underling personality or mood disorder, and would likely attribute it to a “phase” that the teenager is going through. We would have a different response should an 87-year dye her hair lime green.