Examine the concepts of normality and abnormality.

The social and cultural norms criterion:

Normality: Being within limits of “normal” functioning.
Abnormality: Marked strangeness as a consequence of being “abnormal”.

- People who are not included in the in-group are defined as abnormal
  • Abnormal behaviour violates moral or ideal standards
  • Abnormal behaviour differs from commonly accepted beliefs or ways of thinking
  • What is abnormal in one culture (e.g. strange visions, speech and behaviour) might be regarded as special or sacred in another culture (e.g. shamanism)
o Laing’s (1967) conspirational model: In order to keep their definition of reality, the family, general practitioners and psychiatrists conspire against the “insane” by imprisoning and degrading them as human beings
- Supporting evidence:
• Different countries have different tools for diagnosis (e.g. DSM IV-TR in United states, CCMD-3 in China)
• Homosexuality was considered to be abnormal until DSM-III (1980). It is still considered abnormal in many countries.
• Unmarried mothers in Britain and political dissidents in the Soviet unions were once confined to institutions for abnormality. The tendency for American black slaves in the 1800s to try flee captivity was considered to be a mental illness
• The existence of culture-bound syndromes (emics)
• Gender differences in mental health (which may be due to differences in social expectations)
• Cultural variations in the prevalence of certain disorders
• Rosenhan’s (1973) study showed that psychiatrists had difficulties distinguishing the sane from the insane
- Challenging evidence:
• Murphy’s (1976) research on Inuit tribes has indicated that there are linguistic distinctions between “shaman” and “crazy people” in their society

The mental illness criterion/biomedical model/disease model:
o Normality depends upon a properly functioning physiology and nervous system and no genetic predispositions to inherit mental disorder
Supporting evidence:
• Studies on the relationship between physiology, genetic make-up and abnormal behaviour (e.g. Caspi 2003, Kendler 1991, Carraso 2000,
• The universality (etics) of some disorders (e.g. eating disorders, depression and behaviours associated with psychosis – e.g. delusions and hallucinations)
• Sex differences in the prevalence of mental illness (which may be due to physiological differences between men and women)
Challenging evidence:
• Different countries have different tools for diagnosis (e.g. DSM IV-TR in United states, CCMD-3 in China)
• The existence of culture-bound syndromes (emics)
• Cultural variations in the prevalence of certain disorders

Caspi et. al. (2003)

Aim: To investigate relationship between 5-HTT gene and depression

Participants: 847 Caucasian New Zealanders

Experiment: Had participants give self-reports on depression (cross-check with their friends)

Results: People with short allele for this gene correlated with more vulnerability to depression

Conclusion: Certain diseases based on behavior are caused by genes. In this case, depression is found to be related to the length of the 5-HTT gene. The shorter the 5-HTT gene is; the tendency of getting depression rises. This experiment is one of the few experiments that have supported the theory that the biological function of the body is interrelated with the cognitive aspect of human beings.


Abnormal behaviour presents psychologists with a difficult task: it is difficult to define and therefore it is difficult to diagnose as it is based on the symptoms that people report or exhibit. There are four definitions of abnormality: statistical infrequency, deviation from social norms, dysfunctional behaviour and deviation from ideal mental health.

Statistical infrequency defines abnormality as a deviation from the statistical norm, meaning infrequently occurring behaviour. This approach is useful when looking at human characteristics that can be reliably measured, such as height. Most people's scores will cluster around the average, with very few tall people and very few small people. This is known as normal distribution. Therefore, statistically frequent behaviour is defined as normal and statistically infrequent behaviour is defined as abnormal.

However, there is no agreed definition as to how much behaviour must deviate from the norm to be considered as abnormal. Statistical deviation from the norm does not describe the desirability of the deviation. For example, both musical talent and high IQ are statistically infrequent but it is highly desirable. To ensure that behaviour is statistically infrequent requires the collection and maintenance of data which is both difficult and time consuming. It could be the case that by the time data is collected from a population and then inputted into a bell-curve, that the data of the population has already changed. The accuracy of data is also questionable.

Deviation from social norms defines abnormality as behaviour which departs from what is considered acceptable in a society. Norms are expected ways to behave in a society and those who do not think or behave like everyone else breaks these norms, and are considered abnormal. Most members of the society are aware of these norms and adjust their behaviour accordingly. For example, student-teacher relationships, behaviour on public transport etc.

However, there is no universal agreement for social norms. Different societies will have different social norms, and they will change over time. For example, it was much less socially acceptable to smoke cigarettes today than it was 20 years ago. Another problem of this definition is that it defines anyone who goes against social norms as abnormal. This means that people could be defined abnormal by their sexual preferences or religious beliefs.

Dysfunctional behaviour defines abnormality as psychological distress, such as negative thoughts, feelings or emotions, that causes discomfort to the individual. This approach is much more clear in defining abnormality rather than it being statistically infrequent or a deviation from social norms, as many of those with a mental disorder usually suffer from psychological distress. For example, those with eating disorders are typically disturbed by the perception that they are fat, and this causes distress and discomfort towards the individual - hence they can be defined as abnormal. Rosenhan suggested that dysfunctional behaviour can be judged based on 7 criteria:

1. Personal distress (experience unpleasant emotions)
2. Maladaptiveness (behaviour that interferes with our responsibility)
3. Irrationality (behaviour that has no rational basis)
4. Unpredictability (impulse behaviour)
5. Statistical Infrequent (deviation from statistical norm)
6. Observer discomfort (behaviour that causes discomfort to others)
7. Violation of moral and ideal standards

However, many people experience distress at some point in their lives, but this does not mean that they are abnormal. For example, a lost of a loved one may cause someone to experience distress, behaving in ways that are irrational and unpredictable, but this does not mean that they are abnormal. In fact, it may even be an appropriate response to circumstances. Observer discomfort also depends on who the observer is - what may be discomforting to others may be seen as perfectly normal to another. Violation of moral and ideal standards also depends on which standards we are using.

Deviation from ideal mental health defines abnormality as behaviour which departs from what is considered mentally healthy. In this context, normal can be defined as mentally healthy, and abnormal can be defined as mentally unhealthy. Jahoda defined 6 criteria in which mental health can be measured:

1. Attitudes of an individual towards his/herself
2. Growth, development or self-actualization
3. Integration
4. Autonomy
5. Perception of reality
6. Environmental mastery

According to this approach, the more of these criteria that are satisfied, the healthier the individual. However, very few people are likely to achieve all of Jahoda's objectives, and it is also hard to measure the extent to which an individual misses these criteria. Furthermore, different cultures will have different ideas on what is considered ideal. For example, autonomy is valued in individualistic cultures, but in collectivist cultures, working together is valued instead.

None of the above definitions provide a complete definition of abnormality. Attempting to define abnormality is in itself a culturally specific task. What seems abnormal in one culture may be seen as perfectly normal in another, and hence it is difficult to define abnormality.



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