Welcome to our new series! Why psychology? I am hoping to expand the content at this blog. The are several personal reasons for doing this. One, it is a good way to integrate my psychology studies into my theological and philosophical systems of beliefs. As a psychology student about to graduate, who wants to one day become a researcher in neuropsychology, I believe that the discipline has an incredible amount to say to these subjects and the many questions they ask. Thus, I will be publishing relatable content over the next months and, God willing, years.
Whats abnormal psychology?
Psychology, as a broad discipline, is the scientific study of human behaviour and the human mind. Abnormal psychology is one such branch of psychology in the same way that, say, metaphysics is one branch of philosophy. Perhaps a good working definition of abnormal psychology would be the branch of the science of psychology that addresses the description, causes, and treatment of patterns of abnormal behaviour. As we will examine in some more detail later, these behaviours are often suggestive of individuals living with one or more (if a disorder is comorbid) mood, depressive, or psychotic disorders that are causes of great distress and impairment.
Defining abnormal behaviour.
Nonetheless, this above definition certainly invites further thinking, and perhaps a most important point of discussion concerns abnormal behaviour itself. Well, what is abnormal behaviour? And how do we define it? Important questions such as these have been the basis for much debate and discussion between clinicians and experts in the field. A purview of the literature would highlight that there is no simple answer to these questions. However, most clinicians would argue that despite room for discussion and disagreement they can yet arrive at a suitable definition of the term.
Abnormal behavior is not only influenced by numerous external factors (as we shall note shortly) but also by the behaviours on the part of individuals. For example, these are behaviours deemed to be socially unacceptable (they violate social norms), unusual, based on 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 although they, as some might rightly suspect, bring up further questions.
Challenges in defining abnormal psychology
In determining what would constitute abnormal behavior there is no doubt going to be a socially constructed subjectivism to it. If, for instance, abnormal behaviour is thought to violate social norms then whose social norms? Which society? How would we even define 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”? Nonetheless, despite these considerations, “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. We can be quite certain that most people, irrespective of whether we deem them morally good or evil, can comprehend that certain behaviours may benefit others or cause pain and suffering to them. Moreover, 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. Finally, 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. Behaviour such as that is certainly not “normal” and it is likely that the individual is experiencing something akin to 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 how our view of behaviour.
As mentioned, there are several social constructs that ultimately determine how many of us would define something as normal versus abnormal. Public spaces, gender, age, and multicultural aspects are all significant determinants. For example, society has certain expectations of how people should behave and conduct themselves in public spaces such as at train stations, in queues at the bookstore, 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). For example, 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 within, 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.
I think a focus on abnormal psychology would be a great new addition to the content already published on this blog. After all, I think that we can all learn much more about the topic, the disorders themselves, and not only arrive at a better understanding.