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Understanding Normal and Abnormal Behavior Essay


The purpose of this study is to better understand the difference between normal and abnormal behavior in society. Everyone has their own perception of what is normal and what is abnormal and live their lives accordingly. The purpose here is show that there is no definite way of living and that we each live by guidelines that are formed by society and are forced onto us, which we then force onto others. In the never-ending quest for success and happiness, families are bombarded with information about how a supposedly normal family manages. Everything from raising children to resolving conflict to how often people should make love seems to be compared to somebody’s idea of the norm. I also discuss the meaning of disruptive behavior in society which sets the ground for distinguishing normal and abnormal behavior.


Human behavior is different all over the world. Society is different and therefore different things are expected of different people. Most people live according to what they believe is expected by their society and culture. People believe that in every culture there is a „right‟ way to live and a „wrong‟ way. There is a perception on how people should live, work, where they should work, why they should work, what they should eat, where they should, where their kids should play, go to school, what they should study…etc. It‟s as if there is this „life handbook‟ being handed down from generation to generation which has ALL the answers. Apparently every culture has one and EVERYONE knows it by heart and expects everyone else to live accordingly. People don‟t get along, there is constant conflict between who has to have what and everyone believes they are right. Where do we draw the line between normal and abnormal human behavior? Who is right?

How can we ourselves differentiate between the two so that our lives don‟t start and end in conflict? The answer is to better understand what normality and abnormality really is. The importance of having answers to these questions lies in the fact that the wider our perception is on normality and abnormality the more tolerant we are of each others‟ behavior, ideas, and life choices. Instead, most cultures have developed widely used views on is accepted and what is not, leaving very little for individuals to decide on for themselves. Each and every event that has taken place in our lives has left an imprint on our psyches. We reflect on these imprints, what we know as memories, and develop our own personal theories. When these ideas and choices clash with those of what is accepted by society, the term “abnormal behavior” seems to show its face.

One of the first things to understand is that normal is not a synonym for stable. Normalcy is ever changing. What is considered normal today will soon be replaced by what is normal in the future. Because people determine what is normal, every time societal values change their opinion of what is normal will change. The family has changed profoundly over the past 50 years. What was considered normal barely a generation ago may be viewed as quaint or hopelessly outdated. Notice how the structure of American families has fundamentally shifted in recent years: “The idealized norm of the modern nuclear family has given way to a multiplicity of family arrangements . . . The 1950’s model of the White middle-class nuclear family headed by a breadwinner-father and supported by a full-time homemaker-mother is currently found in only eight percent of U.S. households. Dual earning has become the norm for married couples . . .

Through the influence of the women’s movement and sheer economic necessity, nearly 70 percent of mothers of school-age children . . . are in the workforce. With a divorce rate at 50 percent, over one-third of all children will live, at some point, in a single-parent family. Since the vast majority of divorced individuals go on to remarry, stepfamilies are expected to become the most common family form by the year 2000″ (Froma Walsh, Family Business Review, Vol. VII, No. 2, summer 1994, Jossey-Bass Publishers, “Healthy Family Functioning: Conceptual and Research Developments,” p. 176). Other factors, too, influence society’s definition of what is normal. Family structures can vary greatly across racial and ethnic lines as well as by income levels. Given the variables, determining what is normal has become almost hopelessly complicated. Adding to the confusion, interpretations of normalcy are often used interchangeably with terms such as healthy, typical and functional, which also have their respective meanings.

Still another issue is the desire of some small groups, often representing only a tiny percentage of society, to have their “lifestyle” choices recognized and accepted as normal. This definition of what is normal has been debated and stretched so many ways it is virtually meaningless.

Definitions of Normal

Recognizing that interpretations of what is considered normal vary considerably in the social sciences, Froma Walsh has identified four perspectives to help people understand what other people consider to be normal. They are, she says, “normal as asymptomatic, normal as average or typical, normal as ideal or optimal, and normal in relation to systemic transactional processes” (Walsh, p. 176).Realize that each definition, while helping define what is normal, also has its limitations. The “normal as asymptomatic” view is a medical perspective of families who are considered normal and healthy if no health problems are apparent.

Yet, as Dr. Walsh acknowledges, “healthy family functioning involves more than the absence of problems and can be found in the midst of problems . . . No families are free of problems” (Walsh, p. 177). “Normal as average or typical” uses statistical averages to categorize families. If a family matches certain patterns, it is considered normal. Often a bell-shaped curve is used to define normal, with families in the middle range considered normal and those on the extremes viewed as deviations to be avoided. A weakness of this construct is that optimally functioning families— those that exceed the middle range or average—are categorized as abnormal.

There is a belief on how one should participate in society and those who do not want to live within the confinement of cultural “rules” are shunned and in some cases looked down upon and are labeled “abnormal”. When people do not follow the norms of society they are believed to have abnormal behavior. Personally, I believe that the term “abnormal” is used when human behavior and beliefs are not well understood. Society separates the people who choose to live differently. But how can we judge when we are not sure of what is meant by abnormality. The definition of the word abnormal is simple enough: deviating from the norm.

However, applying this to psychology poses a complex problem: what is normal? Whose norm? For what age? For what culture? Some would simply classify what is “good” as normal and what is “bad” as abnormal, but this is a vague and narrow definition and brings up many of the same questions for the definition of “good” as does the definition for “normal”. There are many more ways of determining a more objective reference point. A very simple idea that can be used to classify abnormal behavior is personal distress. Basically, if a person is content with their life, then they are of no concern to the mental health field. However, if a person’s thoughts or behaviors are causing them personal discomfort or unhappiness, then they will be considered abnormal.

The most common criterion for defining abnormality, however, is maladaptiveness. There are two aspects of maladaptive behavior: 1. Maladaptive to one’s self: Inability to reach goals, to adapt to the demands of life. 2. Maladaptive to society: Interferes, disrupts social group functioning.

This type of definition allows much flexibility. It provides room for conforming behavior to society’s norms as well as deviant behavior as long as it is not self-damaging. It makes abnormal the relative term it needs to be, dependent upon each individual’s life and circumstances. There are certain categories of behavior that suggest the presence of psychological disorders which are, in one way or another, maladaptive in that they threaten the well-being of the individual. These categories include long periods of discomfort, impaired functioning, bizarre behavior, and disruptive behavior.

Long Periods of Discomfort

Given, everyone experiences some kind of psychological discomfort during their life. This could be anything as simple as worrying about a calculus test to grieving the death of a loved one. This distress, however, is related to real, related, or threatened events and passes away with time. When such distressing feelings, however, persist for an extended period of time and seem to be unrelated to events surrounding the person, they would be considered abnormal and could suggest a psychological disorder.

Impaired Functioning

Here, again, there must be made a distinction between simply a passing period of inefficiency and prolonged inefficiency which seems unexplainable. Example: a very brilliant person who consistently fails classes or someone who constantly changes jobs for no reason.

Bizarre Behavior

There are many things people do that others would find strange. The various piercings today’s younger generation chooses to get and their style of dress may seem bizarre to adults, but their motivations are not hard to understand, which keeps them from being considered clinically abnormal. Bizarre behavior that has no rational basis, however, seems to indicate that the individual is confused. The psychoses frequently bring on hallucinations (baseless sensory perceptions) or delusions (beliefs which are patently false yet held as truth by the individual).1

Disruptive Behavior

Disruptive behavior means impulsive, apparently uncontrollable behavior that disrupts the lives of others or deprives them of their human rights on a regular basis. This type of behavior is characteristic of a severe psychological disorder. An example of this is the antisocial personality disorder. All of these types of behavior are maladaptive because they directly affect the wellbeing of the individual and those around them, and block the growth and fulfillment of the individual’s potential. The subject of disruptive behavior is a vast topic and cannot be done justice to here but I will point out a few important aspects that should be kept in mind. Because human beings depend on the psychological well being of each individual to function properly, a malfunctioning member (what we may name abnormal) is distinguished by his peers and more likely cast aside.

Every society has its own culture which tends to point out what is accepted and what is deemed undesirable. When one or member presents a separate, different behavior or idea which is not a part of the usual way of life for the members, certain incongruities may arise. Depending on the specific behavior or characteristic, this may cause a disruption in the peaceful lives of those surrounding this individual. Such behavior would be considered abnormal.

Although we understand that what is normal for one society may be abnormal for another and vice versa. And every society has its own specific way of dealing with the abnormal member; usually one is “shunned” if not labeled with a psychological disorder. I, however, personally believe the more differences, positive and negative, the better the society will grow. The question here is that why are functioning societies intolerant of differences among the members? Why should individuals with different (negative) life choices and behavior patterns disrupt society?


Based on the research I have done regarding this matter, not to mention the visible outcome I witness every day, I finally realized that we spend too much time focused on what is expected of us and that puts on a lot of pressure. Believing that there is a certain way to live and abiding by the rules creates grounds for judgment. We place judgment on others who do not follow the norms of society and we label them as abnormal. Everyone has the right to live the way they see fit and as long as no one crosses the line and creates chaos for those around them, we can all function normally alongside each other.

There is no definite way to decide what is normal and what is abnormal; I too believe it‟s all about how we function in society. A well-oiled society, in which the majority of the people act and react, accordingly, will blossom whether or not people understand the concepts of normality and abnormality. However, because we are a species of group survival, we cannot underestimate the power we have on one and other. We make up society and a society that is malfunctioning due to its members having a negative effect on each other is a society that will cease to grow in a positive manner. Chaos is usually the outcome of an extremely poorly functioning society.


1. Kring, Neale, Davison & Johnson; Abnormal Psychology, 2007

Psychology 101:

2. Hardy, C. & Latane, B; Social Loafing on a Cheering Task; Social Science, 71, 165-172; (1986).

3. Heider, F.; The Psychology of Interpersonal Relationships. New York: Wiley; (1958).

4. Hull, C. L.; Principles of behavior; New York: Appleton; (1943).

5. Hull, C. L.; A Behavior System; New York: Appleton; (1952);

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