Examining Concepts of Normality and Abnormality

      It is hard to define what “normal” is in a world where everyone is unique and different.  When there is no set definition of normal it is difficult to make a definition for abnormal.  In fact,  psychologists cannot all agree on the causes or symptoms of it.  The definitions of normality and abnormality change over time and between different cultures.  Today I want to examine the concepts of normality and abnormality through deviation from social norms, failure to function adequately in society,  deviation from ideal mental health, changing definitions, and the effects of labeling.  

     First, a way to determine abnormality is through the deviation of social norms.  Deviating from social norms is when a person behaves in a way that violates the accepted social rules.  Using deviation from social norms is a good way to determine abnormality because it helps society have the ability to intervene and help those who are unable to get the help they need themselves. It is easy for society as a whole to see who is different from them and they can assist in helping those people become “normal.”  This way society is also protected by social deviance. Society can see those who are abnormal easier and so deviance can be easier to predict and to protect others from.  There are also clear definitions of what is considered normal and what is considered abnormal.  For example, it is normal to scratch one’s nose but abnormal to pick one’s nose.  Lastly, social norms are based on what the majority of the population says and does so those who are abnormal are less than those who are normal.

     However, social norms are not very realistic, they are made by a few elite members of society such as celebrities. These rules are then used as a way to lock up those seen as a threat in an institution.  It can also be beneficial to go against and break social norms. For example,  it used to be normal for women not to vote until a few people decided they’d had enough. Social norms also change over time with moral standards.   An example is that it was once considered rude to call an acquaintance by their first name but now it’s not uncommon to only know someone’s first name.  Lastly, the context in which social norms are broken is very important.   A person may steal an apple, which is considered abnormal until it is shown they are stealing it for a starving child. Finally, there are drawbacks to the social norms theory such as only the elite making them, it is beneficial to break social norms,  social norms change over time and that context needs to be brought into consideration. 

     Next,  abnormality can be determined by the failure to function adequately.  Failure to function adequately is when a person’s behaviour suggests that they are unable to cope with everyday life, for example, having an unusual range of emotions.  Sue et al (1994) found that most people who sought psychiatric help did so because they believed a psychological problem was making it hard to function.   In 1984, Miller and Morley found that people sought help because of personal distress that affected functioning.  This view of abnormality is more humane and non-invasive.  It views abnormality from the sufferer’s side and allows therapy to be tailored for each sufferer.  Adequate functioning has a fairly objective definition and categories can be made for each behaviour.  An example is, a person is having trouble functioning because they are angry: which is a category.  In that category, there are subcategories such as hot anger, explosive anger, and cold anger.  It is easy to tell who is normal and abnormal because the focus is clear and obvious.  If one is unable to function they are then considered abnormal. 

     Notwithstanding,  abnormality and dysfunction are not always accompanied by one another.  A person who is considered abnormal can still function in society in many cases.  Dysfunction is also subjective.  It could mean different things to different people, and so a formal definition is hard to find.  Next, distress is not always a bad thing, in fact, it can be normal and healthy.  Distress is a feeling that most humans experience, so to classify it as abnormal would not make sense.  Lastly, dysfunctional behaviour is not always met with negative reactions.  People with eating disorders are often complimented on how good they look, but that does not mean their behaviour is normal or healthy.  Failure to function in society does not necessarily mean abnormal, it is subjective, can be healthy for short periods, and does not always have negative reactions.

     In addition, abnormality can be determined by the deviation from ideal mental health.  This is based on Jahoda’s 1958 model for ideal mental health, which is similar to ideal physical health. There are six criteria that an individual should possess to be considered normal: positive self-attitude, self-actualization, autonomy, resisting stress, perception of reality, and environmental mastery.  The more categories a person fails, the more abnormal they are.  The Jahoda model has a more positive attitude toward mental health and emphasizes achievements.  It focuses on what a person can do rather than what they cannot.  The Jahoda model also makes it easier to identify the specific areas that need work such as resisting stress.  This is useful for specifically targeted treatment such as stress-relieving activities.  Lastly, the individual is considered as a whole person and not just certain features in their behaviour.  This can be beneficial in the treatment of the person.  Finally, Jahoda’s model for ideal mental health has a positive attitude toward mental health, identifies specific areas that need improvement, and considers the person as a whole. 

     Nonetheless, the Jahoda model has over-demanding criteria.  Most people do not fit this ideal health model and are mentally healthy.  The criteria are vague and difficult to define because mental health is something that cannot be objectively measured.  This means the same person could be labeled normal by one psychologist and abnormal by another. Finally, perceptions can change over time, something that is considered abnormal now could be normal in the future.  For example, it used to be abnormal to know someone who was gay and now most people know a few.  To conclude, the Jahoda model is over-demanding, vague, and the perceptions will change.   

     Additionally, the definitions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) are constantly being revised and changed.  This is helpful because with each new addition,  more detail is added and all the information is collected in one system.  One manual helps to keep the ideas of abnormality and normality fairly similar,  no matter where one is. The DSM is always keeping itself up to date and improving definitions so that they are more clear and specific. The changing DSM helps provide more detail, keeps definitions in one system, updated frequently, and always improving.

     However, changing definitions in the DSM are not always good.  The definitions now include many more people than they used to.  This makes having an abnormality almost normal, so where does that leave normality?  The diagnoses are only valid and reliable to a certain extent because the definitions change culturally depending on the social and cultural norms of the area.  The definitions can also be interpreted differently depending on who reads them.  Besides, one system may not be enough to cover the world, there may need to be different systems for different cultures because they all have different views on normality and abnormality.  Lastly, the criteria can be vague and are open to interpretation. The changing DSM includes too many people, does not account for social and cultural differences, and is open to interpretation.

     Moreover, something that needs to be addressed when discussing normality and abnormality is the effect that labels can have on someone.  If someone is labeled as abnormal there is probably a valid reason for that. For example, someone would not be diagnosed with anxiety if they showed no symptoms.  A label will also help a neglected person receive help.  It will help people realize that there is something wrong that can likely be treated.  Labels also help to better explain actions and can alleviate the person from being called lazy, or dumb.   Lastly,  a label can facilitate a way for a person to get treatment and help other professionals know the best kinds of treatment they can use to help the person.  The effect of labels can be positive because they are valid, can help a person revive treatment, explain abnormal behaviour, and assist professionals.

     Yet, labeling is not always great.  People may see the label before they see the person.  A person could have depression and only be known for that instead of the fact that they play the guitar really well.  Sometimes, people interpret a diagnosis as an all-or-nothing. They will assume someone suffers from all the symptoms even when they only suffer three quarters.  A label can also lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, a depressed person can keep being depressed because they know they have depression.  Stigmatization is another issue with labeling.  People with labels may be discriminated against or pitied, either way, treated as if they are somehow less.  A label is also a hard thing to remove because once it is there,  it stays and actions that would seem normal could be considered as symptoms of the disorder. Labeling can be negative because the label is seen before the person, can be seen as all-or-nothing, can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, can lead to stigmatization, and are hard to remove.   

     In conclusion, concepts of normality and abnormality can be examined through deviation from social norms, failure to function adequately in society,  deviation from ideal mental health, changing definitions, and the effects of labeling.  All of these have their pros and cons and none can be considered perfect.

– Jillmothy