Concepts of normality and abnormality The presence of a mental disorder may be considered a deviation from mental health norms and hence the study of mental disorders is often known as abnormal psychology Normal” and “abnormal,” as applied to human behavior, are relative terms. Many people use these classifications subjectively and carelessly, often in a judgmental manner, to suggest good or bad behavior. As defined in the dictionary, their accurate use would seem easy enough: normal–conforming to a typical pattern; abnormal-deviating from a norm.
The trouble lies in the word norm. Whose norm? For what age person? At what period of history ? In which culture ? The definition of the word abnormal is simple enough but applying this to psychology poses a complex problem: what is normal? Whose norm? For what age? For what culture? The concept of abnormality is imprecise and difficult to define. Examples of abnormality can take many different forms and involve different features, so that, what at first sight seem quite reasonable definitions, turns out to be quite problematical.
There are several different ways in which it is possible to define ‘abnormal’ as opposed to our ideas of what is ‘normal’ 1. Deviation from statistical norms One way is the statistical approach which is based on the premise that abnormal behaviour is statistically rare. In some cases it is possible to gather data in a numeric form and derive a mean average value. We can then say that the majority of values which are nearest to the mean are “normal”, and the minority of values farthest from the mean are “abnormal”.
For example, if the average height of a set of people is five foot eight, with most values falling in the range four feet to six foot six, then a height of less than three foot or more than eight foot would or probably be considered “abnormal”. As another example, anxiety can be assessed using Spielberger’s State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. The mean score for trait anxiety is 40 and people who achieve over 55 are seen as statistically rare as only 1 in 50 score that high. Therefore those with high scores are seen as deviant from the greater majority of the population.
Evaluation The statistical approach helps to address what is meant by normal in a statistical context. It helps us make cut – off points in terms of diagnosis but it still does not helps us define the term. There are many people who have high levels of anxiety, but would still not be categorised as clinically abnormal — it is also equally true that people with very low scores on the anxiety scale are also statistically abnormal! The decision of where to start the “abnormal” classification is arbitrary.
Who decides what is statistically rare and how do they decide ? For example, if an IQ of 70 is the cut-off point, how can we justify saying someone with 69 is abnormal, and someone with 70 normal ? An important consideration of statistically “abnormal” values is that “abnormal” doesn’t tell us about the desirability of the deviation. For example, obesity is a statistically normal but not associated with healthy or desirable. Conversely high IQ is statistically abnormal, but may well be regarded as highly desirable
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