Normality / abnormality from psychological perspective

How do we define what is normal? What we accept as normality and what we don’t? From what perspective and for which culture / society? How we end up feeling “abnormal”? Do we talk about “only special”, or “abnormal”, “progress”, “genius”, “severely ill”, “tolerance”, “destructive”? When we ask or not for help because we feel “abnormal”, “different”? What sexual preference is normal?
Which personal characteristics are abnormal? Or which ones we should cultivate, learn?

Faith Jegede says in “What I’ve learned from my autistic brothers” that “The pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential. The chance for greatness, for progress and for change dies the moment we try to be like someone else”.

The concepts “normality / abnormality” are difficult to define from only one perspective. Also, defining one of them does not mean the other one is clarified. In 1958, Marie Jahoda said in her book (you can find it online here: “Current concepts of positive mental health“) that “the absence of mental illness is not a sufficient indicator of mental health”. In other words, if you are not diagnosed with a mental illness, does not mean you are psychologically healthy.

I will talk shortly about a few of the perspectives we can have to analyze the dichotomy of “normality / abnormality”.

  1. Medical diagnosis: there is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). It offers a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders. The editions are revised periodically (DSM-I was published in 1958 and DSM-V in 2013) in order to update the definitions according to the evolving society (medical and psychological discoveries). It is widely used (by clinicians, medical and juridical system, medical insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies), specially to determine the legal definition of normality, according to the legislation.

    DSM generated many critics and controversies and some definitions were changed during the years. Example: older version of DSM viewed homosexuality as abnormal. DSM-III (1980) declared that homosexuality is only abnormal if the individual has negative feelings about his or her sexual orientation.

  2. Defining normality as a statistic value: how often / rare is a characteristic or behaviour in a group. The ones that are most often met are considered normal. In 1986, Clifford Thomas Morgan and Richard Austin King defined abnormality as the significant deviation from commonly accepted patterns of behavior, emotion or thought.

    The approach does not help us in defining if the most often behaviors are also the desirable or healthy ones. Example: the obesity is statistically normal in USA but not necessarily also healthy or desirable.

  3. Ideal mental health theory – developed by Marie Jahoda in 1958. The model defines 5 essential aspects of well-being: time structure, social contact, collective effort or purpose, social identity or status, and regular activity. Jahoda build a list of 6 characteristics of the majority of people who are regarded as normal (known as the ideal mental health):
      • Efficient self-perception
      • Realistic self-esteem and acceptance
      • Voluntary control of behavior
      • True perception of the world
      • Sustaining relationships and giving affection
      • Self-direction and productivity (Environmental mastery – able to meet the varying demands of day-to-day situations)

    The model remains ideal, as it is almost impossible for a person to achieve all of the ideal characteristics all of the time.

  4. Defining abnormal functioning. In 1989, Rosenhan and Seligman suggest the following characteristics that define failure to function adequately:
      • Suffering
      • Mal-adaptiveness (danger to self)
      • Vividness & unconventionality (stands out)
      • Unpredictably & loss of control
      • Irrationality/incomprehensibility
      • Causes observer discomfort
      • Violates moral/social standards

    This model also have limitations. A behavior considered, according to this list, as abnormal, can be actually adaptive for a person. Example: a person who has the obsessive-compulsive disorder of hand-washing may find that the behavior makes him better able to cope with a stressful situation.

  5. Cognitive approach says that thought processes affect the way in which we behave. The main assumptions of the cognitive approach are:
      • Maladaptive behavior is caused by faulty and irrational cognitions.
      • It is the way you think about a problem, rather than the problem itself that causes mental disorders.
      • Individuals can overcome mental disorders by learning to use more appropriate cognitions.

    This approach, as others do also (behaviorism or psychodynamic approach), offers more solutions on how to treat behaviors considered already unhealthy. It states less by which criteria they should be considered normal or abnormal.

Leaving aside the debates on various normalities / abnormalities around the globe, each of us builds his own vision on these concepts. The vision is based on the education we receive, on the rules of the society we live in, on the lessons and experiences we have during our life, on what we choose.

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4 thoughts on “Normality / abnormality from psychological perspective

  • I think about normality in a very simple way…. Tagging someone as a normal human being it’s like saying about someone he or she is beautiful – that’s only one’s perception; things may seem very different for the one sitting right next to you and making (or trying to make) the same judgment. If we refer to the model developed by Marie Jahoda, then I would say that achieving all 5 levels simultaneously is critically dependent on the level of compatibility you find in the people close to you. Otherwise, you may very well find yourself alone and stranded for the rest of your life, even if you are truly ‘beautiful’ by most common standards. Bottom line – we’re all craving for acceptance, even if some of us have a hard time admitting it….acceptance is what makes us normal and gives us peace of mind.

  • That is a very good observation. Acceptance leads in the end to statistics but encapsulates also other aspects.
    In general, it helped in building life guidelines in order to preserve a society.
    Psychology started to take a closer look to it and see how it can be used in therapy, more about it here: Psychology of acceptance.

    Still, acceptance was and still is very often misunderstood. In these cases, it leads to destructive behaviors – to take an example, we can investigate what homosexuality leads to in our society.

  • The thing is Mihaela that we don’t crave acceptance from everyone – just the ones that are important to us. However, as we very well know, society tends to ostracize what doesn’t fit in its own set of boundaries. Let’s not forget that homosexuality was considered a paraphilia not long ago – nowadays it’s the same with alternative forms of sexuality like, for instance BDSM. I guess what I’m trying to say is that no matter how weird something may seem to the large mass of “normal” people, if it’s accepted by your significant one, you will project that sense of fulfillment that makes you “sane looking” in your day to day activity. Bottom line – this point “Sustaining relationships and giving affection” would be completely accurate if acceptance is a prerequisite, otherwise it will have a superficial meaning.

  • I agree with you, adding some mentions.
    We crave for acceptance in different degrees – the ones around us form circles, closer or farther from us. The larger the circle, the less important for us is the acceptance, but still exist in various degrees and impacts our life.

    The point “Sustaining relationships and giving affection” refers exactly to the ability to find and develop those relationships where acceptance exists, among other things. Otherwise has no meaning at all and can become destructive.

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