What is Abnormal Behavior?

Abnormal Behavior (Psychology) 

Abnormal psychology is the branch of psychology that studies unusual patterns of behaviour, emotion and thought, which may or may not be understood as precipitating a mental disorder. Although many behaviours could be considered abnormal, this branch of psychology generally deals with behaviour in a clinical context. 
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There is a long history of attempts to understand, and control behaviour deemed aberrant or deviant (statistically, morally or in some other sense), and there is often cultural variation in the approach taken. The field of abnormal psychology identifies multiple causes for different conditions, employing diverse theories from the general area of psychology and elsewhere. Much still hinges on what exactly is meant by "abnormal". There has traditionally been a divide between psychological and biological explanations, reflecting a philosophical dualism regarding the mind-body problem. There have also been different approaches in trying to classify mental disorders. Abnormal includes three different categories; they are subnormal, supernormal and paranormal. 
The science of abnormal psychology studies two types of behaviours: adaptive and maladaptive behaviours. Maladaptive behaviours suggest that some problem(s) exist and can also imply that the individual is vulnerable and cannot cope with environmental stress, leading them to have problems functioning in daily life.

Clinical psychology is the applied field of psychology that seeks to assess, understand and treat psychological conditions in clinical practice. The theoretical area known as 'abnormal psychology' may form a backdrop to such work. Still, clinical psychologists in the current field are unlikely to use 'abnormal' in their practice. Psychopathology is a similar term to abnormal psychology. Still, it has more of an implication of underlying pathology (disease process) and, as such, is a term more commonly used in the medical speciality known as psychiatry.

Abnormal Behavior (Psychology)

a) Unusual Patterns of  Behavior, Emotion & Thought,  Antisocial Personality Disorder,  Schizophrenia, Depression & Anxiety
b) Abnormal behaviour deviates from what is expected and normal. The study of abnormal behaviour is called abnormal psychology.
c) Abnormal behaviour may be defined as disturbing behaviour (socially unacceptable), distressing, maladaptive, and often the result of distorted thoughts (cognitions).  For example, it can be statistically abnormal, violate societal norms, deviate from ideal mental health standards and impede functioning.
d) Abnormality (or dysfunctional behaviour), in the vivid sense of something deviating from the regular or differing from the typical (such as an aberration), is a subjectively defined behavioural characteristic assigned to those with rare or dysfunctional conditions. 

Behaviour is considered abnormal when atypical, out of the ordinary, causes some kind of impairment, or consists of undesirable behaviour. Who is normal or abnormal is a contentious issue in abnormal psychology.


Definition of  Abnormal Behaviour

Any behaviour state of emotional distress causes personal suffering that is self-destructive or maladaptive.

1. Statistical Deviation:  If normal is what most people do, Abnormal behaviour deviates from the norm.
2. Violation of Cultural Standards:  Any action that violates the group's standards.  Having visions: a religious blessing in some cultures:  Schizophrenic in others.
3. Maladaptive behaviour:  Interrupts everyday life significantly.
4. Emotional Distress:  Feels angry, anxious afraid or depressed most of the time.
5. Impaired Judgment: Cannot tell right from wrong or control their own behaviour. 
6. Deviant behaviour (going naked) in one culture may be considered normal, while it may lead to arrest in others. Deviant behaviour must accompany distress. If the behaviour is dysfunctional, it is clearly a disorder.


Four Criteria of Abnormality

In general, psychologists look at four different criteria for defining abnormal behaviour. Each has its strengths, and each has its problems.

The first criterion is the violation of social norms. Behaviour that goes against what is considered normal by society is abnormal. As we saw, culture plays a role in social norms, as does age. A man who takes off all his clothes and jumps in a fountain is likely to be seen as weird, whereas a three-year-old who does it might just be seen as cute.

Another criterion for identifying abnormal behaviour is a statistical rarity. A person who has an extremely low IQ, for example, might be classified with some type of mental retardation. Because there is only a tiny percentage of the population with mental retardation, it is rare and abnormal. Of course, the problem with statistical rarity is that knowledgeable people are just as rare as those with mental retardation. So, according to this criterion, Albert Einstein would be abnormal.

The third criterion of abnormal behaviour is personal distress. When we engage in deviant behaviour, the cause (and sometimes, result) of our behaviour can be distress. An excellent example of this is obsessive-compulsive disorder, where anxiety about something can lead to compulsive behaviours meant to relieve that distress. People with antisocial personality disorder have an underdeveloped conscience.

The final criterion for defining abnormal behaviour is maladaptive behaviour. Is the behaviour likely to hurt the person or someone else? Whether it is physical harm or social harm, such as losing a job or the respect of your peers, maladaptive behaviour leads to some type of harm.


Classification of Abnormal Behavior 

The standard abnormal psychology and psychiatry reference book in North America is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. The current version of the book is known as DSM-5. It lists a set of disorders and provides detailed descriptions of what constitutes a disorder, such as Major Depressive Disorder or anxiety disorder. It also gives general descriptions of how frequently the disorder occurs in the general population, whether it is more common in males or females and other such facts.

The DSM-5 identifies three key elements that must be present to constitute a mental disorder. These elements include:
Symptoms that involve disturbances in behaviour, thoughts, or emotions.
Symptoms associated with personal distress or impairment.
Symptoms stem from internal dysfunctions (i.e. specifically biological and/or psychological roots). 

The diagnostic process uses five dimensions, each of which is identified as an "axis", to ascertain the symptoms and overall functioning of the individual. It is important to note that the DSM-5 no longer uses this axis system. These axes are as follows:

a) Axis I – Clinical disorders, including major mental and learning disorders. These disorders make up what is generally acknowledged as a disorder, including major depressive disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, and substance dependence. To be diagnosed with a disorder in this axis, the patient must meet the criteria for the particular disorder presented in the DSM in that certain disorders section. Disorders in this axis are of particular importance because they are likely to affect the individual in many other axes. In fact, the first 3 axes are highly related. This axis is similar to what would be considered an illness or disease in general medicine.

b) Axis II – Personality Disorders and a decrease in the use of intellect disorder. This extensive axis contains conditions relating to how the individual functions with the world around him or herself. This axis provides a way of coding for long-lasting maladaptive personality characteristics that could affect the expression or development of a disorder on Axis I. However, this is not always the case. Conditions in this axis include antisocial personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder. Mental retardation is also coded in this axis, although most other learning disabilities are coded in Axis I. This Axis is an example of how the Axes all interact with one another, helping to give an overall diagnosis for an individual.

c) Axis III – General medical conditions and "Physical disorders". The conditions listed here are the ones that could potentially be relevant to the managing or understanding of the case. Axis III is often used together with an Axis I diagnosis to give a better-rounded explanation of the particular disorder. This can be seen in the relationship between major depressive disorder and unremitting pain caused by a chronic medical problem. This category could also include drugs and alcohol as these are often symptoms of disease themselves, such as substance dependence or major depressive disorder. Due to the nature of Axis III, it is usually recommended that the patient visit a medical doctor when they are being assessed to determine if the problem could potentially require medical intervention such as surgery. Multiple diagnoses are often found when the first 3 axes are used, which is actually encouraged by the DSM.

Axis IV – Psychosocial/environmental problems contributing to the disorder. Axis IV is used to inspect the broader aspects of a person’s situation. This axis will examine the social and ecological factors affecting the person’s diagnosis. Stressors are the main focus of this axis, and particular attention is paid to stressors that have been present in the past year; however it is not a requirement that the stressor had to form or continued in the past year. Due to many potential stressors in an individual’s life, therapists often find such stressors via a checklist approach which is encouraged by the DSM. An example of the checklist approach would be examining the individual’s family life, economic situation, occupation, potential legal problems, etc. The patient must be honest in this section as environmental factors can significantly impact the patient, especially in certain therapy schools such as the cognitive approach.

Axis V – Global assessment of functioning (often referred to as GAF) or "Children's Global Assessment Scale" (for children and teenagers under the age of 18). Axis V is a score given to the patient which is designed to indicate how well the individual is handling their situation at the current time. The GAF is based on a 100-point scale which the examiner will use to give the patient a score. Scores can range from 1 to 100, and depending on the score on the GAF, the examiner will decide the best course of action for the patient. “According to the manual, scores higher than 70 indicate satisfactory mental health, good overall functioning, and minimal or transient symptoms or impairment, scores between 60 and 70 indicate mild symptoms or impairment, while scores between 50 and 60 indicate moderate symptoms, social or vocational problems, and scores below 50 severe impairment or symptoms”. As GAF scores are the final Axis of the DSM, the information present in the previous 4 axes is crucial for determining a correct score.


The major international nosologic system for the classification of mental disorders can be found in the most recent version of the International Classification of Diseases, 10th revision (ICD-10). The ICD-10 has been used by World Health Organization (WHO), the Member States, since 1994. Chapter five covers some 300 mental and behavioural disorders. The ICD-10's chapter five has been influenced by APA's DSM-IV, and there is a great deal of concordance between the two. WHO maintains free access to the ICD-10 Online. Below are the main categories of disorders:
F00–F09 Organic, including symptomatic mental disorders
F10–F19 Mental and behavioural disorders due to psychoactive substance use
F20–F29 Schizophrenia, schizotypal and delusional disorders
F30–F39 Mood [affective] disorders
F40–F48 Neurotic, stress-related and somatoform disorders
F50–F59 Behavioral syndromes associated with physiological disturbances and physical factors
F60–F69 Disorders of adult personality and behaviour
F70–F79 Mental retardation
F80–F89 Disorders of psychological development
F90–F98 Behavioral and emotional disorders with onset usually occurring in childhood and adolescence
F99 Unspecified mental disorder


Causes / Perspectives on Abnormal Behavior

Those in abnormal psychology study people's emotional, cognitive, and/or behavioural problems. Abnormal behaviour may be defined as disturbing behaviour (socially unacceptable), distressing, maladaptive (or self‐defeating), and often the result of distorted thoughts (cognitions).

Several perspectives (models, approaches derived from data) and theories attempt to explain the causes of abnormal behaviour.

a) The medical perspective. Those who hold a medical view focus on biological and physiological factors as causes of abnormal behaviour, which is treated as a disease or mental illness and is diagnosed through symptoms and cured through treatment. Hospitalisation and drugs are often preferred methods of treatment rather than psychological investigation. (Recent research linking biochemical disorders with some abnormal behaviours has supported this approach.)

b) The psychodynamic perspective. The psychodynamic perspective, proposed as an alternative to the medical model, evolved from Freudian psychoanalytic theory, which contends that psychological disorders result from anxiety produced by unresolved, unconscious conflicts. Treatment focuses on the identification and resolution of disputes.

c) The behavioural perspective. Those espousing a behavioural view contend that abnormal behaviour results from faulty or ineffective learning and conditioning. Treatments are designed to reshape disordered behaviour and, using traditional learning procedures, to teach new, more appropriate, and more adaptive responses. 

For example, a behavioural analysis of a child abuse case might suggest that a father abuses his children because he learned the abusive behaviour from his father and must now learn more appropriate parenting tactics.

d) The cognitive perspective. According to the cognitive perspective, people engage in abnormal behaviour because of particular thoughts and behaviours often based upon their false assumptions. Treatments are oriented toward helping the maladjusted individual develop new thought processes and values. Therapy is a process of unlearning maladaptive habits and replacing them with more useful ones.

e) The social‐cultural perspective. From a social-cultural standpoint, abnormal behaviour is learned within a social context, from the family to the community to culture. Cultural variables acquired through learning and cognitive processes are believed to be important in producing abnormal behaviour. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia, for example, are psychological disorders found chiefly in Western cultures, which value the thin female body.


Treatment of Abnormal psychology

Psychologists may use different perspectives to try to get a better understanding of abnormal psychology. Some of them may just concentrate on a single view. But the professionals prefer to combine two or three perspectives to get important information for better treatments. 

There are several different perspectives used in abnormal psychology. While some psychologists or psychiatrists may focus on a single viewpoint, many mental health professionals use elements from multiple areas to better understand and treat psychological disorders.

Ancient Treatments of psychological disorders include trephination, exorcism, being caged like animals, being beaten, burned, castrated, mutilated, or transfused with animal’s blood.

The Psychoanalytic Approach

The psychoanalytic perspective has its roots in the theories of Sigmund Freud. This view suggests that many abnormal behaviours stem from unconscious thoughts, desires and memories. While these feelings are outside of awareness, they are still believed to influence conscious actions. Therapists who take this approach believe that by analysing memories, behaviours, thoughts and even dreams, people can uncover and deal with some of the feelings leading to maladaptive behaviours and distress.


The Behavioral  /Learning  Approach

The behavioural approach to abnormal psychology focuses on observable behaviours. In behavioural therapy, the focus is on reinforcing positive behaviours and not reinforcing maladaptive behaviours. This approach targets only the behaviour itself, not the underlying causes. 

When dealing with abnormal behaviour, a behavioural therapist might utilise classical conditioning and operant conditioning strategies to help eliminate unwanted behaviours and teach new behaviours.

Investigators believe that fear responses are inculcated through observational learning. Young monkeys develop fear when they watch other monkeys afraid of snakes. Parents transmit their fears to their children.

Behaviourists believe that our actions are primarily determined by our experiences in life rather than by the underlying pathology of unconscious forces. Abnormality is therefore seen as the development of behaviour patterns considered maladaptive (i.e. harmful) for the individual. Behaviourism states that:

All behaviour (including abnormal) is learned from the environment (nurture),  and All behaviour that has been known can also be ‘unlearnt’ (which is how deviant behaviour is treated)

The behavioural approach emphasises the environment and how abnormal behaviour is acquired through a) Classical Conditioning, b) Operant Conditioning, and c) Social Learning. 


The Medical Approach/Medical Perspectives

The medical approach to abnormal psychology focuses on the biological causes of mental illness. This perspective emphasises understanding the underlying cause of disorders, including genetic inheritance, related physical conditions, infections and chemical imbalances. Medical treatments are often pharmacological in nature, although medication is often used in conjunction with some other type of psychotherapy.

The medical or biological approach to psychopathology believes that disorders have an organic or physical cause. This approach focuses on genetics, neurotransmitters, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, biochemistry, etc. The approach argues that mental illnesses are related to the physical structure and functioning of the brain. For example, differences in brain structure (abnormalities in the frontal and pre-frontal cortex, enlarged ventricles) have been identified in people with schizophrenia.

The Biological Perspective

Natural Selection has led our ancestors to learn to fear snakes, spiders, and other animals. Therefore, fear preserves the species. Twin studies suggest that our genes may be partly responsible for developing fears and anxiety. Twins are more likely to share phobias.

General anxiety, panic attacks, and even obsessions and compulsions are biologically measurable as an overarousal of brain areas involved in impulse control and habitual behaviours. (PET scans behaviours such as hallucinations, suicidal ideas, or extreme fears about something are 'symptoms' of mental illness. 

Different illnesses can be identified as 'syndromes', clusters of symptoms that go together and are caused by the illness.
These symptoms lead the psychiatrist to make a 'diagnosis' for example:
‘This patient is suffering from a severe psychosis.’
 ‘He is suffering from the medical condition we call schizophrenia.'

To diagnose someone we would usually need some/all of the following:
Clinical interview
Careful observation of behaviour, mood states, etc.
Medical records
Psychometric tests

So, those who hold a medical perspective focus on biological and physiological factors as causes of abnormal behaviour, which is treated as a disease, or mental illness and is diagnosed through symptoms and cured through treatment. Hospitalisation and drugs are often preferred methods of treatment rather than psychological investigation. This model has been adopted by psychiatrists rather than psychologists.


Psychosurgery is brain surgery to treat psychological disorders. It is the more invasive form of biological therapy because it involves the removal of brain tissue, and the effects are irreversible and sometimes unpredictable. The first modern psychosurgery technique was the pre-frontal lobotomy, developed in the 1930s to cure schizophrenia and other disorders where patients were aggressive and unmanageable. Lobotomies involved destroying areas of the pre-frontal cortex involved in planning and free will. The result was that lobotomised patients became compliant, less aggressive, and easy to control.

Modern psychosurgery for mental illness is limited to rare procedures such as anterior capsulotomy in extreme cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder and removing tumours that cause behaviour change.

The Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach to abnormal psychology focuses on how internal thoughts, perceptions and reasoning contribute to psychological disorders. Mental treatments typically focus on helping individuals change their beliefs or reactions. 

Cognitive therapy might also be used in conjunction with behavioural methods in a technique known as cognitive behavioural therapy. The Cognitive Approach assumes that a person’s thoughts are responsible for their behaviour. 

The model deals with how information is processed in the brain and the impact on behaviour.

The basic assumptions are:
Maladaptive behaviour is caused by faulty and irrational cognitions.
The way you think about a problem rather than the problem itself causes mental disorders.

Individuals can overcome mental disorders by learning to use more appropriate cognitions. The individual is an active processor of information. How a person perceives, anticipates and evaluates events rather than the events themselves, which will have an impact on behaviour. This is generally believed to be an automatic process; in other words, we do not really think about it.

In people with psychological problems, these thought processes tend to be harmful, and the cognitions (i.e. attributions, cognitive errors) made will be inaccurate.

In brief, according to the cognitive perspective, people engage in abnormal behaviour because of particular thoughts and behaviours that are often based upon their false assumptions.

Treatments are oriented toward helping the maladjusted individual develop:
New thought processes and New values. 
Therapy is a process of unlearning maladaptive habits and replacing them with more useful ones. 

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