‘Abnormality’ was defined by Rosenhan and Seligman (1989) as the absence of normality. This however raises a problem, what is normality? What is it to be normal? Definitions of normality is a controversial topic in Psychology. For now, the simplest way of definition abnormality is: dangerous or harmful behaviour which deviates from the statistical norm. For example a person who self-harms may be labelled as abnormal through this definition. This definition is known as the statistical criterion. Psychologists may use interviews, psychometric tests, neurological tests or observations to diagnose people as abnormal.
Labelling people as abnormal may in fact create the problems it claims to diagnose, this is what psychologists call a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moreover once a person has been labelled as abnormal , it becomes difficult, even impossible in some cases to shake off the label, for example if someone has been diagnosed as being schizophrenic, if they stop displaying symptoms, they may been diagnosed with ‘schizophrenia in remission,’ this means they still are classified as a schizophrenic, but they aren’t displaying symptoms, this is what Rosenhan (1973) termed ‘the stickiness of labels.’
Thomas Szasz is a critic of diagnosing people as being abnormal or having mental illnesses, for the reasons listed above, but also because he notes that it is difficult to specifically define what a mental illness is, just like the difficulty of defining abnormality at the top of this page. Szasz also claims such a system of labelling people as abnormal is open to social abuse. To give an idea of how this could occur, consider homosexuality , 1 in 4 people are homosexual, so it would be difficult to claim it is abnormal, however, it was only in 1973 that homosexuality was declassified as a abnormal mental disorder. Before this, there are many cases of the mistreatment of homosexuals, some even were forced to undergo electro-shock therapy to cure them.
Bill is a man who has recently retired after a long and successful career. He lives alone in a modest cottage by the sea. Since retiring and his wife dying some years back, Bill lives the life of a recluse, not engaging with anyone, not acknowledging anyone on his daily walks, his only contact with people is with his children, other than them, he refuses visitors.
Is Bill abnormal?
Certainly his behaviour is not normal, but it would be difficult to classify as abnormal, even if he does deviate from the statistical ‘norm.’
Perhaps a more detailed approach is required.
Rosenhan and Seligman (1989) put forth 7 criterions or elements which must be considered when defining abnormality:
- Unpredictability and loss of control
- Incomprehensibility and irrationality
- Violation of moral and ideal standards
- Observer discomfort
- Vividness and unconventionality
Unpredictability and loss of control
For example a person who is normality loud and full of life, becoming quiet and reserved.
This refers to behaviour not being adapted to societies expectations, maladaptive behaviour can damage the status quo.
Incomprehensibility and irrationality
This refers to behaviour which has no logical or reasoned foundations, for example an arbitrary outburst of violence.
Violation of moral and ideal standards
This refers to behaviour which transcends societies morality and ideology, for example murder or robbery.
This refers to the suffering of the individual, does the condition cause them to suffer and be in pain.
This refers to the discomfort of any persons observing the behaviour, it may be something simple such as grabbing peoples clothes.
Vividness and unconventionality
This refers to behaviour which is deliberately outlandish, as to attract attention and stand out.