Psychopathology - Abnormality Defined

Deviation from Social Norms:

​Abnormality can be defined as a deviation from social norms This means that we label people as abnormal if their behaviour is different from what we accept as the norms of society. Some social norms are explicit, which means they are legal written laws. While other social norms are implicit and are unwritten, or unspoken rules in society. If people break these rules, then they are deviating away from social norms and therefore, could be labeled as abnormal.

This definition of abnormality can be applied to certain behaviours. For example, a type of behaviour that breaks implicit rules could be standing too close to another person in a face to face conversation, or dressing to a particular dress code. While explicit rule breaking can also include criminal behaviour.

According to this definition anyone who breaks a social norm is abnormal.

  • Behaviour might deviate from social norms due to ‘eccentricity’ rather than abnormality. Therefore according to this definition people who break implicit social norms may be wrongly labelled abnormal.
  • Behaviour may appear to deviate from social norms because it has been taken out of context, rather than being due to abnormality. This is a problem because it may lead to individuals being wrongly identified as abnormal.
  • Social norms change over time and therefore it is problematic to determine abnormality as a deviation from social norms. Historically this definition has been wrongly applied to groups of individuals who are not abnormal but fail to meet the social norms of the society.
  • Social norms differ across cultures, therefore what is seen as abnormal in one culture would be normal in another culture due to their definition of the ‘norm’. This is a problem because it means that the definition cannot be generalised to all cultures as it would lead to people being inaccurately labelled as abnormal.

Failure to function adequately

Abnormality can be defined as a failure to function adequately. This means that anyone who is suffering and unable to function on a daily basis is labelled as abnormal.”

Psychologists will assess individuals using the DSM-IV and will also assess the different levels of functioning as indicated by the Global Assessment of Functioning. It is apparent that individuals can function at different levels within society, if a person is identified as ‘abnormal’ to others but it not at risk of harming themselves or others and is able to function within society then no intervention is required.

However, psychological research conducted by Rosenman & Seligman suggests that there are 7 characteristics indicating abnormality as a failure to function adequately. They are: Suffering, Maladaptiveness, Unconventionality of behaviour, Unpredictability, Irrationality and incomprehensibility, Observer discomfort, and Violation of moral standards.


  • Definition is not the whole picture: It does not really define abnormality, it just determines the extent of a persons problems and the likelihood of them needing professional help.
  • There are exceptions to the rule: sometimes people behave uncharacteristically or inadequately, but this does not make them abnormal. Therefore this definition cannot be accurately applied to all individuals.
  • The direction of causality may be different: the inability to cope with life might be the cause of a mental disorder, not always a symptom of one.

Deviation from Ideal Mental Health

Abnormality can be defined as a deviation from ideal mental health. This means that psychologists consider the characteristics of mental health, rather than mentalillness. According to this definition, people should ‘meet’ certain criteria to be considered normal'.

Marie Jahoda proposed six characteristics that are associated with optimal living & ‘ideal mental health’. Therefore, anyone who deviates from this is ‘abnormal’.

This definition of abnormality included the following criteria;
  • self-actualisation,
  • positive attitude towards the self,
  • resistance to stress,
  • personal autonomy,
  • accurate perception of reality,
  • adapting to (& mastery of) the environment.
Any individual who does not meet these criteria of ideal mental health is considered abnormal under this definition of abnormality.

  • To meet all 6 criteria is quite demanding, and therefore most people will fall short of ‘ideal mental health’. For example, it is difficult to ‘self-actualize’ as very few people meet their full potential in life. This is a problem because the majority of people in society would be inaccurately identified as abnormal if this definition is applied.
  • Also, the definition suggests that with Ideal mental health, a person should be able to resist stress, but there are possible benefits to stress, as some people work better under moderate stress. Therefore people may be wrongly labelled as abnormal due to the way they manage their sources of stress.
  • There are cultural issues with this definition as Jahoda’s ideas are based on Western ideals evident in some cultures but not others. This is a problem because it means that the definition cannot be applied to all cultures as people may be incorrecty labelled as abnormal.

Are the images below really showing abnormal behaviour? 
Can you explain they should and shouldn't be considered abnormal?