Abnormal Psychology Essay

Abnormal Psychology Essay

Psychological disorders, as classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), essentially consist of patterns of behaviors and cognitions deemed to be “abnormal”. The manner in which we conceptualize behavior as abnormal has significant ramifications for the ways in which psychologists conceptualize research, treatment, and their clients. A number of criteria are generally adopted by psychologists when determining abnormality. One defining characteristic of abnormal behavior is statistical deviation from the average. That is, a behavior is usually deemed abnormal when it is relatively rare in the normal distribution of behavior within a particular culture. However there are inherent problems in conceptualizing abnormal behavior solely in terms of statistical rarity. As Steven J. Heine (2008) indicates, alcohol abuse and depression are considered to be disorders, however neither is considered statistically rare with respect to their rates of occurrence. Likewise, reliance on standard deviations from the mean implies that the “average” is therefore the “ideal” and that anyone falling beyond the “ideal” is abnormal. As a result, an individual of intelligence significantly above the mean (i.e. a genius) should be considered abnormal, or not “ideal”. Clearly this definition alone fails to adequately encompass the criteria for deeming behaviors and thought patterns as abnormal.

In addition to statistical rarity, psychologists have defined abnormal behavior as that which “cause(s) some kind of impairment to the individual” (Heine, 2008; p. 410). Along these lines, an individual’s behavior and/or cognitions are considered to be abnormal when they cause the individual significant personal distress and/or impair their ability to function normally. However, this definition of what constitutes abnormality also falls short of fully characterizing abnormal behavior. Following solely from this definition, sociopathic individuals (e.g. Charles Manson) would not be considered pathological insomuch as they fail to experience distress associated to their thoughts and behaviors.

Furthermore, biological determinates have been implicated in the development of abnormal behavior as indicated by the universality of certain psychopathologies. However, as Heine indicates, that “even a disease with such a clear biological foundation as schizophrenia can present itself in different ways across cultures…this cultural variation in psychopathology underscores the critical role that culture plays in mental health” (Heine, 2008; p. 432). Clearly definitions of abnormality must transcend the confines of rarity, personal distress, and biological predisposition to sufficiently define that which is considered to be abnormal.

Cultural deviance classifies abnormality to be behavior that would be considered abnormal if it violates standards of a society or culture. Abnormality implies non-normality, or deviation from that which is deemed to be normative; therefore defining abnormality implicitly demands an understanding of that which is considered to be normative behavior within a particular cultural context. For example, “hearing voices” or experiencing vivid hallucinations would undoubtedly be considered abnormal in most Western societies; however, it is an extremely common and normative experience amongst Australian aborigines and American Indians (Spencer, 1983).

Heine (2008) offers example of ways in which culture shapes our definition of abnormal behavior and how that definition may change over time as a function of the fluid and dynamic nature of cultures. With respect to the variation in experiences of depression cross-culturally, Heine draws reference to a landmark study conducted in an inpatient psychiatric hospital in China by Arthur Kleinman, in which 100 patients were diagnosed as having neurasthenia. Neurasthenia is a psychiatric condition marked by over 50 symptoms such as, insomnia, headaches, weakness in the back, and the inability to concentrate. Neurasthenia was commonly diagnosed amongst American’s in the 19th century, however, gradually disappeared and was removed from the DSM in the mid-20th century. Heine indicates that the physical symptoms of neurasthenia came to be seen as less important in American culture than the underlying psychological variables that were assumed to be “causing” the physical ailments; as such, neurasthenia no longer constituted a coherent diagnostic category. This shift in thinking coincides with the Western development of the field of psychology and a pivotal shift from the medicalization of psychological disturbances to a more cognitive and emotionally oriented approach to understanding psychological processes.