The Study of Abnormal Psychology (2022)

Imagine you’re in line at the grocery store and you notice that the person in front of you has a tic – their arms periodically jerk around and their head bobs to the left.

This is a hallmark symptom of Tourette syndrome, one of three tic disorders identified by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5).

People that have Tourette syndrome exhibit abnormal behaviors because most people do not have tics – this behavior is statistically not the norm.

But abnormal psychology is about much more than studying behaviors that affect a minority of people. Instead, it is an extensive field of research in psychology that seeks to better understand why people behave the way they do.

Abnormal Psychology Definition

The most basic definition of abnormal psychology is that it’s the study of behavior, feelings, emotions, and thoughts that deviate from the norm.

On a deeper level, abnormal psychology examines why these thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behaviors occur in the context of biological, cultural, or environmental stimuli.

Though it might sound easy enough to label something as abnormal, this isn’t the case – one of the chief difficulties that psychologists encounter is simply trying to define what is and is not normal.

After all, diagnostic criteria change, and how they are applied also changes.

For example, the original DSM, which was published in 1952, classified homosexuality as paraphilia, or a sexual arousal disorder. In the DSM-II (1968), it was classified as a “sexual orientation disturbance,” and in the DSM-III (1980), it was presented as “ego-dystonic homosexuality.”

(Video) Abnormal Psychology Unit 1 Lecture 1

Then, in the DSM-III-R (1987), it was dropped altogether, reflecting the changing understanding that homosexuality is merely a variant of normal human sexuality rather than an abnormal behavior.

In the past, abnormality was merely defined as a statistical anomaly, but over the years, psychologists have learned that abnormal behaviors, thoughts, and so forth are the result of a combination of factors – most notably, psychological dysfunction, personal distress, and deviance from social norms.

In fact, the DSM-5 uses these three criteria in its definition of mental disorders:

“A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion, regulation or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities…”

Let’s examine these three factors of abnormality in closer detail.

Dysfunction, Distress, and Deviance: Determining Abnormality

The DSM-5 is clear that no single definition can capture the breadth and depth of abnormality. However, it does require that certain factors are present – dysfunction, distress, and deviance.

From the standpoint of dysfunction, abnormal behavior is viewed as something that diminishes one’s well-being. Moreover, dysfunction can be overtly studied – a person exhibiting dysfunction will not perform as well as one that is not in a dysfunctional state. This allows psychologists to compare the behavior of a person to what is expected of people in general (or to that person’s behavior in the past) to judge whether dysfunction is present.

According to this point of view, whatever is causing the dysfunction (i.e., a student’s grades drop because of stress at home due to their parents getting a divorce), once the issue is resolved, the dysfunctional behavior will return to normal.

Distress, on the other hand, occurs when a person experiences some sort of disabling condition, which can be in many different realms from social distress to occupational distress to distress related to relationships.

(Video) Understanding Abnormal Psychology - The Simplest Explanation Ever

Whatever the case, distress can present as physical pain, such as a crushing headache, as psychological pain, such as anxiety, or both. What’s important to note is that distress alone cannot define something as abnormal. It must present with other factors.

For example, even the most high-functioning, normal adult can experience physical and psychological distress as a result of the death of a pet. Only when that distress leads to dysfunction and deviance can it be considered as a factor in causing abnormal behavior.

Lastly, deviance refers to behaviors that have departed from the norm. Norms, in this case, refer to “common” or “average” behaviors that have been defined by society, culture, values, customs, and so forth. Therefore, behaviors that lie outside those norms are referred to as deviant.

Note that “deviant” in this context does not necessarily mean “inappropriate” or “bad.” For example, having a genius-level IQ is a deviation from the norm, but is certainly not a bad thing. Openly crying for American men is not typical, yet it is not a bad thing, either.

It’s also important to point out that what qualifies as deviant can change over time. Going back to the example of how homosexuality was diagnosed in early versions of the DSM, what was once viewed as deviant behavior is now widely accepted as part of the norm.

For many clinicians, a fourth criterion, dangerousness, is often used to describe abnormal behavior as well. This isn’t to say that people who behave abnormally are a danger to themselves or others, but if a psychologist is concerned that a person’s abnormal behaviors pose a danger, they have a duty to report it to authorities.

Popular Abnormal Psychology Theories

When studying abnormal psychology, there are two primary schools of thought that seek to explain why abnormalities occur.

The psychogenetic theory posits that psychological difficulties cause abnormal behaviors, thoughts, and so on.

So, if we go back to our example of the person in line at the grocery store, the abnormal behaviors they displayed (physical tics) are a result of having a psychological disorder – Tourette syndrome. A psychologist working from this perspective might treat the person’s Tourette syndrome using psychological techniques like psychotherapy.

(Video) Key Terms for Abnormal Psychology

The somatogenic theory offers a different perspective – that abnormal behavior is the result of a physical illness or biological disorder.

From this point of view, the person in line at the grocery store might have tics because they have brain damage suffered in a car accident. Treatment might involve the use of medical interventions like drug therapy or surgery.

In other words, one theory seeks to explain and treat behavior through the lens of psychology while the other seeks to find biological explanations and treatments for abnormality.

By and large, most psychologists don’t pick a side, but rather see behavior as the result of both psychological and physiological issues.

Common Psychological Disorders

The DSM-5 outlines diagnostic criteria for hundreds of mental disorders. Some, like depression, are highly common. Others, like Trichotillomania – an obsessive-compulsive disorder in which a person has a compulsion to pull out their own hair – is much less common.

To organize psychological disorders, the DSM uses broad categories to group similar disorders. Among the most common types are anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, eating disorders, and dementias.

Below are examples of each class of these disorders.

Obsessive-compulsive disorders (classified as an anxiety disorder) are characterized by pervasive thoughts and repetitive behaviors. An example is Onychophagia, a body-focused repetitive behavior in which the person cannot control their fingernail biting behavior. Though they might try to stop biting their nails, obsessive thoughts about biting their nails creep in, resulting in continued nail-biting to relieve tension.

Major depression (classified as a mood disorder) is the most common psychological disorder, and is often called “the common cold” of disorders. Depression results in a generally depressed mood most of the time, a lowered interest in pleasurable activities, weight loss or gain, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate feelings of guilt, inability to think or concentrate, indecisiveness, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation.

(Video) The Psychology of Abnormal Behavior: Understanding the Criteria & Causes of Abnormal Behavior

Schizophrenia (classified as a psychotic disorder) is a severe mental disorder in which there is a significant disruption in both cognition and emotion. People that have schizophrenia often have a fractured sense of self, suffer from delusions, have difficulties communicating, experience disruptions in thought patterns and perception, and have psychotic manifestations, such as hearing voices.

Anorexia nervosa (classified as an eating disorder) is a common eating disorder in which a person severely restricts their food intake that results in significantly low weight. This is accompanied by an intense fear of gaining weight and an unrealistic conception of one’s body weight and shape.

Alzheimer’s disease (classified as dementia) is often diagnosed when a person has a major loss of memory as well as a decline in physical and mental functioning. These changes must be both profound and develop over a short period of time.

As noted above, the DSM includes many other less common categories of mental disorders, from neurodevelopmental disorders to dissociative disorders to somatic symptom and related disorders. In each case, the criteria for diagnosis (and for gauging abnormality) are extremely clear.

But, as was discussed earlier, diagnostic criteria change with time and with a better understanding of why people behave the way they do. Though it isn’t a perfect system, it is one upon which psychologists studying abnormal behavior must rely.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

(Video) Lecture 2. History of Abnormal Psychology

October 2019

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What is the study of abnormal psychology? ›

There are many ways psychologists define "abnormal psychology." But, at its root, the term refers to the study of behaviors and mental illnesses that are unusual and atypical — out of the societal norm.

Why is the study of abnormal psychology important? ›

As patterns of behavioral or psychological symptoms that have a detrimental impact on multiple areas of life, abnormal psychology is interested in studying and treating the psychological disorders that create distress for the individual experiencing the negative symptoms.

What is your definition of abnormal psychology? ›

Definition of abnormal psychology

: a branch of psychology concerned with mental and emotional disorders (such as anxiety disorders, phobias, depression, and developmental disorders) and with certain incompletely understood normal phenomena (such as dreams and hypnosis)

What is abnormal psychology quizlet? ›

Abnormal psychology. A branch of psychology that deals with psychopathology and abnormal behavior. It deals with a wide range of psychiatric disorders which are characterized by maladaptive behavior that is destructive to the individuals or to others. Diagnosis.

Which statement about abnormal psychology is accurate? ›

Which statement about the field of abnormal psychology is accurate? ​Abnormal psychology seeks to describe, explain, predict, and modify unusual behaviors.

Who was the founder of abnormal psychology? ›

(1886) Sigmund Freud developed his personality theory, which has continued to impact abnormal psychology treatment methods today.

Why is abnormal psychology hard to define? ›

Limitations. The most obvious problem with defining abnormality using social norms is that there is no universal agreement over social norms. Social norms are culturally specific - they can differ significantly from one generation to the next and between different ethnic, regional and socio-economic groups.

What causes abnormal psychology? ›

Medical models point to distorted brain chemistry, illness, or hormonal imbalances as potential causes of abnormal psychology. For example, schizophrenia seems to have a genetic root, and schizophrenic behavior could be characterized as being caused by abnormal genes.

What is an example of abnormal psychology? ›

Abnormal Psychology Disorders include anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia, delusional disorders, substance use disorders, dissociative disorders, and impulse control disorders.

What does abnormal mean in simple words? ›

not normal, average, typical, or usual; deviating from a standard: abnormal powers of concentration; an abnormal amount of snow; abnormal behavior. extremely or excessively large: abnormal profit.

What is an example of abnormal? ›

For example, a mouse continuing to attempt to escape when escape is obviously impossible. Behavior that violates the standards of society. When people do not follow the conventional social and moral rules of their society, the behavior is considered to be abnormal.

What is the best definition of a case study abnormal psychology? ›

What is the best definition of a case study? a detailed description of one person. A problem with defining abnormal behavior in terms of deviation from statistical norms is that the definition. does not specify how unusual the behavior must be to be considered abnormal.

What is the new name for abnormal psychology? ›

Under MacDonald's tenure as Editor-in-Chief, he has advocated for the APA to approve a title change that will remove the term "abnormal" from its title for the first time in its 115-year history. The new title will be the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science.

What are the 4 types of abnormality? ›

The four main models to explain psychological abnormality are the biological, behavioural, cognitive, and psychodynamic models.

What is the most accurate conclusion about the current understanding of abnormal psychology? ›

Which statement is the MOST accurate conclusion about the current state of abnormal psychology in the United States? There is no single definition of abnormality, no single theoretical understanding of the causes of mental illness, and no single best treatment.

What is abnormal theory? ›

There are two theories that mental health experts believe cause abnormality: somatogenic and psychogenic theories. Somatogenic theorists believe that abnormal behavior is caused by illnesses or biological disorders, while psychogenic theorists believe that abnormal behavior is caused by psychological imbalances.

What are the 4 D's in abnormal psychology? ›

Psychologists often classify behavior as abnormal using 4 D's: deviance, distress, dysfunction, and danger.

What are the 3 D's of abnormal psychology? ›

Most definitions include the “3 Ds”: Dysfunction, distress (or impairment), and deviance.

How is abnormal psychology treated? ›

The two most common types of treatment are psychotherapy and pharmacological treatment. Psychotherapies come in a variety of theoretical orientations and formats. The most common treatment orientations are psychodynamic, humanistic, behavioral, cognitive, biomedical, and integrated.

What is abnormal behavior? ›

behavior that is atypical or statistically uncommon within a particular culture or that is maladaptive or detrimental to an individual or to those around that individual. Such behavior is often regarded as evidence of a mental or emotional disturbance, ranging from minor adjustment problems to severe mental disorder.

What is abnormal called? ›

(ab-NOR-mul) Not normal. Describes a state, condition, or behavior that is unusual or different from what is considered normal. In medicine, an abnormal lesion or growth in or on the body may be benign (not cancer), precancerous or premalignant (likely to become cancer), or malignant (cancer). Also called atypical.

How do you use abnormal? ›

Abnormal in a Sentence
  1. William worried that his abnormal bleeding was a symptom of cancer.
  2. Bill's abnormal behavior convinced Jenna to stop dating him.
  3. It was abnormal that the student could not sit through the lecture.
  4. The abnormal winds forced us to pull off of the road.

What type of word is abnormal? ›

Abnormal can be a noun or an adjective.

How many types of abnormal behaviour are there? ›

Abnormal includes three different categories; they are subnormal, supernormal and paranormal. The science of abnormal psychology studies two types of behaviors: adaptive and maladaptive behaviors.

How do you answer a case study question in psychology? ›

There are several steps to writing an answer to a case study assignment:
  7. STEP 7: SUBMIT.

What are the elements of abnormal psychology? ›

There are four main models used to understand and describe abnormal behavior in psychology: the biological, behavioral, cognitive, and psychodynamic models. Many contemporary psychologists consider the root cause of abnormal behavior to be a combination of many factors described by these models.

How do you identify abnormal behavior? ›

  1. Violation of social norms.
  2. Statistical rarity.
  3. Personal distress.
  4. Maladaptive behaviors.
18 Jul 2022

What are the 3 modes of abnormality? ›

In Module 2, we will discuss three models of abnormal behavior to include the biological, psychological, and sociocultural models.

What are two definitions of abnormality? ›

Suggested Answer: Two definitions of abnormality include statistical infrequency and and failure to function adequately (FFA). According to the statistical infrequency definition, a behaviour is seen as abnormal if it is statistically uncommon or not seen very often in society.

What kinds of studies are used in the field of abnormal psychology? ›

Research Methods in Abnormal Psychology
  • Description, Explanation, Prediction, and Control: The Objectives of Science.
  • The Scientific Method.
  • Naturalistic Observation.
  • The Correlational Method.
  • The Experimental Method.
  • Examples of Independent and Dependent Variables in Experimental Research.
  • Epidemiological Studies.

What is abnormal psychology examples? ›

Abnormal Psychology Disorders include anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia, delusional disorders, substance use disorders, dissociative disorders, and impulse control disorders.

What are the causes of abnormal psychology? ›

Medical models point to distorted brain chemistry, illness, or hormonal imbalances as potential causes of abnormal psychology. For example, schizophrenia seems to have a genetic root, and schizophrenic behavior could be characterized as being caused by abnormal genes.

What research method would be used to study abnormal behavior? ›

Experimental Method:

The experimental method used to study maladaptive behaviour has been used recently in abnormal psychology.

Who is called abnormal? ›

: deviating from the normal or average a person with abnormal [=exceptional] strength abnormal powers of concentration often : unusual in an unwelcome or problematic way abnormal behavior abnormal test results. abnormal. noun. Definition of abnormal (Entry 2 of 2) : an abnormal person.

Who defines abnormal behavior? ›

According to the American Psychological Association, abnormal behavior is defined as 'behavior that is atypical or statistically uncommon within a particular culture or that is maladaptive or detrimental to an individual or those around that individual.


1. Abnormal Psychology Chapter 1 Lecture
(Prof. Vallejo)
2. What is abnormal psychology?
(Demystifying Medicine McMaster)
3. Behavioral Approach in Abnormal Psychology - with Dr Z
(Dr Z Psych Stuff)
4. Abnormal Psychology - Lecture 1: Introduction
(Aqualus Gordon)
5. Abnormal Psychology Unit 1 Lecture 2
(Alan Moore)
6. What is Abnormal Psychology: Definition and Common Disorders Studied

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