Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All
Abnormal psychology is a field of psychology that focuses on mental illness. It involves the classification of mental disorders, theories to explain them, and methods to treat them. The goal of abnormal psychology is to understand what abnormality means, how we can identify abnormal behavior, what causes it, and how we can help individuals change their abnormal behavior.
In most universities and colleges, undergraduate courses in abnormal psychology are available. These courses can be especially helpful for students who are interested in pursuing careers as clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric social workers, psychiatric nurses, and medical sociologists and anthropologists.
The Definition of Abnormality
Various definitions have been proposed for abnormality in psychology. The statistical definition of abnormality considers behavior abnormal if it is infrequent or deviates from the average in the general population. However, not all deviations from the average are necessarily abnormal. Only deviations in an undesirable direction, as judged by social norms, are considered abnormal. Abnormality can also be defined as behavior that violates social norms and rules of behavior in society. Additionally, personal distress caused by conditions like depression and anxiety can be considered abnormal. Dysfunction and disability, such as the inability to achieve one’s goals or adjust to occupational, social, or family life, can also be indicators of abnormality. In severe cases, lack of contact with reality, such as hallucinations or delusions, can be considered psychotic behavior, which is irrational and incomprehensible. It is important to note that no single definition of abnormality can be applied to all types of mental illness since they differ greatly in their characteristics and symptoms.
Theories of Abnormality
In the past, people sometimes believed that mental illness had physical causes. For instance, ancient Egyptian and Greek physicians thought that hysteria, which caused physical symptoms like seizures, headaches, and paralysis, was caused by the uterus moving to different parts of the body. Archaeologists have found skulls with holes in them, called trephines, that were likely made by stone tools. People may have used trephining to release demons or evil spirits. To treat hysteria, a priest or shaman might use pleasant smells to lure the uterus back to its proper place or unpleasant fumes to drive it away from other parts of the body.
In the past, it was believed that evil spirits caused madness and controlled people’s behavior. Some people with religious or magical abilities were thought to have the power to free individuals from these spirits. Exorcism was a common treatment for demonic possession, which involved a ritual to expel the demons from the body. A priest or shaman would communicate with the spirit, ask it to identify itself, and persuade it to leave the person it was possessing.
In Western Europe during the medieval era, there were outbreaks of madness that affected large groups of people. For instance, dancing manias involved hundreds of people who danced nonstop until they were completely worn out. Animal possession, such as lycanthropy, was also common, where groups of people believed that they were wolves.
Throughout history, caring for the mentally ill was typically left to families, with violent patients being restrained. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that hospitals were established as religious institutions, such as the infamous Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam) in London where patients were chained to walls. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, leprosy hospitals in Europe were converted into mental institutions that aimed to protect society and maintain social order. During the Age of Reason in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mental illness was seen as the loss of reason, leading to inhumane treatment and the perception of the mentally ill as violent and dangerous.
However, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, Philippe Pinel initiated humane treatment of patients by unshackling them, and the moral treatment movement began in England, emphasizing kindness and work for patients. Franz Anton Mesmer proposed the concept of magnetic fluid imbalances causing illnesses like epilepsy and hysteria, which later became known as hypnotism. Genetic research has shown that mental illness can be inherited, and biochemical research has revealed anomalies in the dopamine levels in schizophrenic patients. Additionally, neuroanatomical disorders in the brain have also been detected in some patients with schizophrenia. This biomedical theory considers abnormality as a physical malfunction, and medical terminology such as syndrome, etiology, and treatment are used to explain it.
Biomedical treatment for mental illness involves the use of antipsychotics, antidepressants, lithium, and antianxiety drugs. Antipsychotic drugs, also known as neuroleptics or psychotropics, were discovered in the 1950s and have been revolutionary in treating schizophrenia. However, they have side effects such as irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, and involuntary movements. Antidepressants were discovered by chance and have side effects such as cardiac problems, confusion, and fatigue. Lithium is used to treat bipolar disorder but must be carefully monitored as it can be toxic. Antianxiety drugs like Valium may be addictive and lose potency with prolonged use.
In contrast, psychoanalytical theory, developed by Sigmund Freud, focuses on psychological forces that affect the mind, whether consciously or unconsciously. These forces can be in conflict with each other and can lead to abnormal behavior if not resolved. Key components of psychoanalytical theory include the development and structure of personality, as well as psychoanalysis.
During the development of personality, according to Freud, individuals pass through five stages from birth to maturity. The term sexuality is used to describe sexual energy that exists at birth and is associated with many pleasurable activities, including feeding in infancy. Each stage focuses on a different area of the body and source of satisfaction, such as the oral stage (to age 2) with the mouth and feeding, the anal stage (ages 2-4) with the anal region and toilet training, and the phallic stage (ages 3-6) with stimulation of the genitals. The latter stage is associated with intense sexual rivalry with the parent of the opposite sex, and the conflict is called the Oedipus complex. Children normally resolve this conflict by identifying with the same-sex parent and obtain sexual satisfaction through marriage. Children become asexual during the latency stage (ages 6-12) which leads to the genital stage and adult heterosexual maturity.
Personality, according to Freud, has three components: the id, which aims to achieve immediate biological needs; the ego, which enables the individual to achieve acceptable goals; and the superego, which directs behavior toward morality and religion. The ego uses defense mechanisms to protect itself from the continuous pressure of the id and superego. These include repression, projection, reaction formation, regression, rationalization, displacement, and identification.
Psychoanalysis aims to reduce repression and make the patient conscious of early childhood experiences. Free association, dream analysis, and analysis of defenses are used to lift repression. In free association, patients say whatever comes to mind. In dream analysis, it is assumed that sleep weakens ego defenses that repress threatening and unacceptable material. During analysis, the patient reaches a stage of transference, and attitudes and emotions are directed toward the analysis. This process will end with catharsis and the disappearance of symptoms.
The behavioral or learning perspective emphasizes behavior and environmental influences. Classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning have become popular. Classical conditioning was identified with Ivan Pavlov and involves the association of a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus that elicits a reflex response. Operant conditioning involves increasing the frequency of responses that are followed by reinforcement and decreasing their frequency when reinforcement is withdrawn. Observational learning involves learning by observing others, either directly or indirectly through verbal instructions.
Behavior therapy relies on several methods, such as counterconditioning, which associates a feared stimulus with another that is pleasant.
Systematic desensitization is a method used to treat anxiety and phobias. It works by teaching patients to relax, which is incompatible with anxiety. The patient then creates a list of feared objects or situations, arranged from least to most anxiety-provoking. They then practice imagining these situations while in a state of relaxation. Modeling involves observing a fearless person and imitating their behavior. Extinction involves removing reinforcement from unwanted behavior. Token economy is a method of reinforcing desired behavior by providing tokens that can be exchanged for rewards. Aversive conditioning pairs an unpleasant stimulus with an attractive one to eliminate unwanted behavior. Cognitive psychology focuses on the mental functions involved in processing information, such as perception, recognition, and reasoning. Cognitive therapy emphasizes how patients perceive and label their problems, and seeks to replace irrational beliefs with more rational ones. Irrational beliefs can cause negative emotions, and cognitive therapy is particularly useful in treating depression. Beck and Ellis were pioneers in cognitive therapy, and identified common cognitive errors such as arbitrary inference, overgeneralization, and magnification.
Psychologists use various methods to diagnose and understand abnormal behavior. These methods must be reliable and valid, meaning they are stable and useful for their intended purpose. The clinical interview is one method where the clinician talks with the patient. Unstructured interviews allow both the patient and clinician to talk about anything, while structured interviews have a specific schedule. Psychological testing is another method, including unstructured tests like the draw-a-person or Rorschach test and structured tests like the MMPI or intelligence tests. Behavioral observation records and reports the behavior of the patient to be modified. Psychophysiological measurements measure physiological reactions while neurological measurements assess brain dysfunctions that affect thought, emotion, and behavior. The Halstead-Reiten Test Battery is a well-known neurological test for diagnosing brain damage.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Barlow, D. H., & Durand, V. M. (2015). Abnormal psychology: An integrative approach (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
- Bloom, J. R., & Farragher, B. (2010). Behavioral and cognitive theories of abnormality. In T. H. Ollendick, & M. J. Hersen (Eds.), Handbook of child psychopathology (pp. 3-20). New York, NY: Springer.
- Comer, R. J. (2015). Fundamentals of abnormal psychology (8th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
- Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2014). Abnormal psychology (12th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Insel, T. R., & Roth, W. T. (2018). Introduction to abnormal psychology. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
- Mineka, S., & Zinbarg, R. (2018). Abnormal psychology (17th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
- Oltmanns, T. F., & Emery, R. E. (2015). Abnormal psychology (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
- Sue, D. W., Sue, D., & Sue, S. (2016). Understanding abnormal behavior (11th ed.). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.
Leave a Reply