Abnormal psychology

Abnormal psychology

Abnormal psychology is the branch of psychology that studies unusual patterns of behavior, emotion, and thought, which could possibly be understood as a mental disorder. Although many behaviors could be considered as abnormal, this branch of psychology typically deals with behavior in a clinical context. There is a long history of attempts to understand and control behavior deemed to be aberrant or deviant, and there is often cultural variation in the approach taken.

The field of abnormal psychology identifies multiple causes for different conditions, employing diverse theories from the general field of psychology and elsewhere, and much still hinges on what exactly is meant by “abnormal”. There has traditionally been a divide between psychological and biological explanations, reflecting a philosophical dualism in regard to the mind-body problem. There have also been different approaches in trying to classify mental disorders. Abnormal includes three different categories; they are subnormal, supernormal and paranormal.

The science of abnormal psychology studies two types of behaviors: adaptive and maladaptive behaviors. Behaviors that are maladaptive suggest that some problem exist, and can also imply that the individual is vulnerable and cannot cope with environmental stress, which is leading them to have problems functioning in daily life in their emotions, mental thinking, physical actions and talks. Behaviors that are adaptive are ones that are well-suited to the nature of people, their lifestyles and surroundings, and to the people that they communicate with, allowing them to understand each other.

Clinical psychology is the applied field of psychology that seeks to assess, understand, and treat psychological conditions in clinical practice. The theoretical field known as abnormal psychology may form a backdrop to such work, but clinical psychologists in the current field are unlikely to use the term abnormal in reference to their practice. Psychopathology is a similar term to abnormal psychology, but has more of an implication of an underlying pathology, and as such, is a term more commonly used in the medical specialty known as psychiatry.



Hippocrates, hypothesized that the body and mind become unwell when the vital fluids in the body become unbalanced. These fluids include black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Too much phlegm causes a person to be fatigued, too much black bile causes depression, yellow bile causes a quick temper, and too much blood causes optimism, cheerfulness, and confidence.


The act of placing individuals with mental illness in a separate facility known as an asylum dates to 1547, when King Henry VIII of England established the St. Mary of Bethlehem asylum in London. This hospital, nicknamed Bedlam, was famous for its deplorable conditions. Asylums remained popular throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance era. These early asylums were often in miserable conditions. Patients were seen as a “burden” to society, locked away and treated almost like beasts to be dealt with, rather than patients needing treatment.

However, many of the patients received helpful medical treatment. There was scientific curiosity into abnormal behavior, although it was rarely investigated in the early asylums. Inmates in these early asylums were often put on display for profit, as they were viewed as less than human. The early asylums were basically modifications of the existing criminal institutions.

In the late 18th century, the idea of humanitarian treatment for the patients gained much favor, due to the work of Philippe Pinel in France. He pushed for the idea that the patients should be treated with kindness, and not the cruelty inflicted on them, as if they were animals or criminals. His experimental ideas, such as removing the chains from the patients, were met with reluctance.

The experiments in kindness proved to be a great success, which helped to bring about a reform in the way mental institutions would be run. Through this movement, millions of dollars were raised to build new institutions to house the mentally ill. Mental hospitals began to grow substantially in numbers during the 20th century, as care for the mentally ill increased in them.

By 1939, there were over 400,000 patients in state mental hospitals in the USA. Hospital stays were normally quite long for the patients, with some individuals being treated for many years. These hospitals, while better than the asylums of the past, were still lacking in the means of effective treatment for the patients. Even though the reform movement had occurred, patients were often still met with cruel and inhumane treatment.

Things began to change in the year 1946, when Mary Jane Ward published the influential novel titled The Snake Pit, which was made into a popular movie of the same name. The book called attention to the conditions which mental patients faced, and helped to spark concern in the general public to create more humane mental health care in these overcrowded hospitals.

This led to a large number of the patients being released, while not being fully cured of the disorder they were hospitalized for. This became known as the phenomenon of deinstitutionalization. This movement had noble goals of treating the individuals outside of the isolated mental hospital, by placing them into communities and support systems. Another goal of this movement was to avoid the potential negative adaptations that can come with long-term hospital confinements. Many professionals, for example, were concerned that patients would find permanent refuge in mental hospitals, which would take them up when the demands of everyday life were too difficult.

However, the patients moved to the community living have not fared well typically, as they often spoke of how they felt “abandoned” by the doctors who used to treat them. It also has had the unfortunate effect of placing many of the patients in homelessness. Many safe havens for the deinstitutionalized mentally ill have been created, but it is nevertheless estimated that around 26.2% of people who are currently homeless have some form of a mental illness.

The placing of these individuals in homelessness is of major concern to their wellbeing, as the added stress of living on the streets is not beneficial for the individual to recover from their particular disorder. In fact, while some of the homeless who are able to find some temporary relief in the form of shelters, many of the homeless with a mental illness “lack safe and decent shelter”.

Explaining abnormal behaviour

People have tried to explain and control abnormal behavior for thousands of years. Historically, there have been three main approaches to abnormal behavior: the supernatural, biological, and psychological traditions. Although it has been difficult to define abnormal psychology, one definition includes characteristics such as statistical infrequency.

A more formalized response to spiritual beliefs about abnormality is the practice of exorcism. Performed by religious authorities, exorcism is thought of as another way to release evil spirits who cause pathological behavior within the person. In some instances, individuals exhibiting unusual thoughts or behaviors have been exiled from society, or worse.

Perceived witchcraft, for example, has been punished by death. Two Catholic Inquisitors wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, which was used by many Inquisitors and witch-hunters. It contained an early taxonomy of perceived deviant behavior, and proposed guidelines for prosecuting deviant individuals.


Biological explanations

In the biological tradition, psychological disorders are attributed to biological causes. In the psychological tradition, disorders are attributed to faulty psychological development, and to social context.

The Greek physician Hippocrates, who is considered to be the father of Western medicine, played a major role in the biological tradition. Hippocrates and his associates wrote the Hippocratic Corpus between 450 and 350 BC, in which they suggested that abnormal behaviors can be treated like any other disease. Hippocrates viewed the brain as the seat of consciousness, emotion, intelligence, and wisdom and believed that disorders involving these functions would logically be located in the brain.

Psychological explanations

According to Sigmund Freud’s structural model, the Id, Ego, and Super-ego are three theoretical constructs that define the way an individual interacts with the external world, as well as responding to internal forces The Id represents the instinctual drives of an individual that remain unconscious. The super-ego represents a person’s conscience and their internalization of societal norms and morality.

Finally, the ego serves to realistically integrate the drives of the id with the prohibitions of the super-ego. Lack of development in the Superego, or an incoherently developed Superego within an individual, will result in thoughts and actions that are irrational and abnormal, contrary to the norms and beliefs of society. Rational emotive behavior therapy helps to drive irrational and maladaptive beliefs out of one’s mind.

Multiple causality

The number of different theoretical perspectives in the field of psychological abnormality has made it difficult to properly explain psychopathology. The attempt to explain all mental disorders with the same theory leads to reductionism. Most mental disorders are composed of several factors, which is why one must take into account several theoretical perspectives, when attempting to diagnose or explain a particular behavioral abnormality or mental disorder. Explaining mental disorders with a combination of theoretical perspectives is known as multiple causality.

The diathesis–stress model emphasizes the importance of applying multiple causality to psychopathology, by stressing that disorders are caused by both precipitating causes, and predisposing causes. A precipitating cause is an immediate trigger that instigates a person’s action or behavior. A predisposing cause is an underlying factor that interacts with the immediate factors to result in a disorder. Both causes play a key role in the development of a psychological disorder.

Recent concepts of abnormality

Statistical abnormality – when a certain behavior/characteristic is relevant to a low percentage of the population. However, this does not necessarily mean that such individuals have mental illness

Psychometric abnormality – Psychometric abnormality implicates abnormality as a deviation from a statistically determined norm, such as the population average IQ of 100. In this case, an IQ score less than about 70–75 may define someone as having a learning disability, and suggests they will have some difficulties coping with life. However, the problems associated with a low IQ differ widely across individuals depending on their life circumstances.

So, even when an individual is defined as psycho-metrically ‘abnormal’, this tells us little about their actual condition or problems. Furthermore, if one takes the other end of the IQ spectrum, a deviation of 30 points above the mean is generally not considered to be abnormal, or to indicate the presence of mental health problems.

Deviant behavior – this is not always a sign of mental illness, as mental illness can occur without deviant behavior, and such behavior may occur in the absence of mental illness.

Combinations – including distress, dysfunction, distorted psychological processes, inappropriate responses in given situations, and causing/risking harm to oneself.


There is a wide range of mental disorders that are considered to be forms of Abnormal Psychology. These include, but are not limited to:


Schizophrenia can be described as a disorder that causes extreme loss of touch with reality. The Psychotic nature of schizophrenia manifests itself through delusions, as well as auditory and visual hallucinations. Schizophrenia is known to have a genetic etiology, as well as other biological components, such as brain disruptions in the prenatal development period.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is characterized by high amounts of inattention and hyperactive impulsiveness. Inattentive symptoms include not listening, careless errors, disorganization, losing personal belongings, becoming easily distracted, and forgetfulness. Symptoms of hyperactive impulsiveness include fidgeting, talking excessively, and interrupting others. Additional traits may include superficial charm, sexual promiscuity, and pathological lying.

DID has two main etiologies, which are the post-traumatic and socio-cognitive models.

SAD is also considered to be one of the more disabling mental disorders. Symptoms of this disorder include fear in most, if not all social situations.

Specific phobia

Individuals with specific phobias have an extreme fear and avoidance of various objects or situations. Specifically, fears become phobias when there is excessive and unreasonable fear that is disproportionate to the culture that the individual is in.

PTSD symptoms can arise due to various experiences that involve actual or threatened violence, injury, or death. Firsthand experience, witnessing, or learning about traumatic experiences can possibly lead to the development of PTSD. This approach has led to the development of radical biological treatments, e.g. lobotomy.

Psychogenic – abnormality is caused by psychological problems. Psychoanalytic, Cathartic, Hypnotic and Humanistic Psychology treatments were all derived from this paradigm. This approach has, as well, led to some esoteric treatments: Franz Mesmer used to place his patients in a darkened room with music playing, then enter it wearing a flamboyant outfit and poke the “infected” body areas with a stick.



The standard abnormal psychology and psychiatry reference book in North America is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. The current version of the book is known as the DSM-5. It lists a set of disorders and provides detailed descriptions on what constitutes a mental disorder.

The DSM-5 uses three main sections to organize its contents. These sections include I,II, and III. Section I includes the introduction, use, and basics of the DSM-5. Section II includes diagnostic criteria and codes. Section III includes emerging measures and models.

Section I

Section I of the DSM-5 briefly prefaces purpose, content, structure, and use. WHO maintains free access to the. Below are the main categories of disorders:

F00–F09 Organic, including symptomatic, mental disorders


The ICD-11 is the most recent version of the International Classification of Diseases. The Mental, behavioral, or Neurodevelopmental disorders section highlights forms of abnormal psychology.

Mental, behavioral, or Neurodevelopmental disorders

6A00-6A0Z Neurodevelopmental disorders

These studies allow calculation of a heritability coefficient.

Genetic vulnerabilities

Constitutional liabilities

Brain dysfunction and neural plasticity

Physical deprivation or disruption

Socio-cultural factors

Effects of urban/rural dwelling, gender and minority status on state of mind

Generalizations about cultural practices and beliefs may fail to capture the diversity that exists within and across cultural groups, so we must be extremely careful not to stereotype individuals of any cultural group

Experiences with child physical and or sexual abuse.



Psychoanalytic theory is heavily based on the theory of the neurologist Sigmund Freud. These ideas often represented repressed emotions and memories from a patient’s childhood. According to psychoanalytic theory, these repressions cause the disturbances that people experience in their daily lives, and by finding the source of these disturbances, one should be able to eliminate the disturbance itself. This is accomplished by a variety of methods, with some popular ones being free association, hypnosis, and insight.

The goal of these methods is to induce a catharsis, or emotional release in the patient, which should indicate that the source of the problem has been tapped, and it can then be treated. Freud’s psychosexual stages also played a key role in this form of therapy, as he would often believe that the problems the patient was experiencing were due to them becoming stuck, or “fixated”, in a particular stage. Dreams also played a major role in this form of therapy, as Freud viewed dreams as a way to gain insight into the unconscious mind. Patients were often asked to keep dream journals to bring in for discussion during the next therapy session.

There are many potential problems associated with this style of therapy, including resistance to the repressed memory or feeling, and negative transference onto the therapist. Psychoanalysis was carried on by many after Freud, including his daughter Anna Freud, and Jacques Lacan. Many others have also gone on to elaborate on Freud’s original theory, and to add their own take on defense mechanisms or dream analysis. While psychoanalysis has fallen out of favor to more modern forms of therapy, it is still used by some clinical psychologists to varying degrees.

Behavioral therapy

Behavior therapy relies on the principles of behaviorism, such as involving classical and operant conditioning. Behaviorism arose in the early 20th century, from the work of psychologists such as James Watson and B. F. Skinner. Behaviorism states that all behaviors humans do is because of a stimulus and reinforcement. While this reinforcement is normally for good behavior, it can also occur for maladaptive behavior. In this therapeutic view, the patients maladaptive behavior has been reinforced, which will cause the maladaptive behavior to be repeated. The goal of the therapy is to reinforce less maladaptive behaviors, so that with time, these adaptive behaviors will become the primary ones in the patient.

Humanistic therapy

Humanistic therapy aims to achieve self-actualization. In this style of therapy, the therapist will focus on the patient themselves, as opposed to the patient’s problem. The goal of this therapy is, by treating the patient as “human”, rather than “client”, to get to the source of the problem, and to resolve the problem in an effective manner. Humanistic therapy has been on the rise in recent years, and has been associated with numerous positive benefits. It is considered to be one of the core elements needed for therapeutic effectiveness, and a significant contributor to not only the well-being of the patient, but society as a whole.

Some say that all of the therapeutic approaches today draw from the humanistic approach in some regard, and that humanistic therapy is the best way for treat a patient. Humanistic therapy can be used on people of all ages; it is very popular among children in its variant known as “play therapy”. CBT has been found to be an effective treatment for many patients, even those who do not have diseases and disorders typically thought of as psychiatric ones.

For example, patients with the disease multiple sclerosis have found a lot of help using CBT. The treatment often helps the patients cope with the disorder they have, and how they can adapt to their new lives without developing new problems, such as depression, or negative schemas about themselves.

According to RAND, therapies are difficult to provide to all patients in need. A lack of funding and understanding of symptoms provides a major roadblock that is not easily avoided. Individual symptoms and responses to treatments vary, which creates a disconnect between patient, society and care givers/professionals.

Play therapy

Children are often sent to therapy due to outbursts that they have in a school or home setting; the theory is that by treating the child in a setting that is similar to the area that they are having their disruptive behavior, the child will be more likely to learn from the therapy, and have an effective outcome. In play therapy, the clinicians will “play” with their client, usually with toys, or a tea party.

Playing is the typical behavior of a child, and therefore, playing with the therapist will come as a natural response to the child. In playing together, the clinician will ask the patient questions, and due to the setting, the questions seem less intrusive, more therapeutic, and more like a normal conversation. This should help the patient realize issues they have, and confess them to the therapist with less difficulty than they may experience in a traditional counselling setting.

Play therapy involves a therapist observing a child, as the child plays with toys and interacts with their surrounding environment. The therapist plays an observational as well as an interactional role in the intervention. This process allows for the child to enact their problems through play, and speak more comfortably with the therapist.

Family systems therapies

Family systems therapies are based on the belief that children’s problems revolve around problems that occur within the family. Family systems therapy attempts to improve the relations between multiple people involved in specific families via therapeutic intervention. For the best effect, it is recommended that the entire family be included in the therapy. The treatments include family management skill development, and child-parent attachment development. These interventions help to improve family functioning. These goals are often achieved by creating understanding regarding behaviors, creating opportunities for attachment, and increasing the family’s ability to think about their history and relationships.


Tanaka-Matsumi, J. (2019). Abnormal psychology and culture. In D. Matsumoto & H. C. Hwang (Eds.), The handbook of culture and psychology (pp. 431–467). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190679743.003.0014

Curtis, D. A., & Kelley, L. J. (2021). Psychomythology of Psychopathology: Myths and Mythbusting in Teaching Abnormal Psychology. Teaching of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/00986283211023195


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