Criteria of Abnormal Behavior

What is Abnormal

Abnormality (or dysfunctional behavior), in the vivid sense of something deviating from the normal or differing from the typical (such as an aberration), is a subjectively defined behavioral characteristic, assigned to those with rare or dysfunctional conditions.

This definition suggests that instead of trying to define what is mental illness? we should define a state of ideal mental illness. Deviation from this would therefore be classed as abnormal. Jahoda’s (1958) criteria for ideal mental health – an individual should be in touch with their own identity, resistant to stress, be focused on the future and have an accurate perception of reality.

The legal definition of abnormality declares a person insane when he is not able to judge between right and wrong, but this criterium is not used by psychologists The following criteria are used to determine whether a person’s behavior is abnormal or not.

Several conventional criteria

The standard criteria in psychology and psychiatry are that of mental illness or mental disorder.

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Determination of abnormality is based upon medical diagnosis. This is often criticized for removing control from the 'patient', and being easily manipulated by political or social goals.

Statistical Infrequency

In this definition of abnormality behaviors which are seen as statistically rare are said to be abnormal. For instance, one may say that an individual of above or below average IQ is abnormal. This definition, however, fails to recognize the desirability of the particular incidence. This definition also implies that the presence of abnormal behavior in people should be rare or statistically unusual, which is not the case.

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Instead, any specific abnormal behavior may be unusual, but it is not unusual for people to exhibit some form of prolonged abnormal behavior at some point in their lives.

Deviation from Social Norms

It defines the departure or deviation of an individual, from society's unwritten rules (norms). For example if one was to witness a man jumping around, nude, on the streets, the man would be perceived as abnormal, as he has broken society's norms about wearing clothing, not to mention one's self dignity. There are also a number of criteria for one to examine before reaching a judgment as to whether someone has deviated from society's norms. The first of these criterion being culture; what may be seen as normal in one culture, may be seen as abnormal in another. The second criterion being the situation & context one is placed in; for example, going to the toilet is a normal human act, but going in the middle of a supermarket would be seen as highly abnormal, i.e., defecating or urinating in public is illegal as a misdemeanor act of indecent public conduct.

The third criterion is age; a child at the age of three could get away with taking off its clothing in public, but not a man at the age of twenty. The fourth criterion is gender: a male responding with behavior normally reacted to as female, and vice versa, is retaliated against, not just corrected. The fifth criterion is historical context; standards of normal behavior change in some societies, sometimes very rapidly.

A substantial deviation from social norms or expected standards of conduct. Every society has a set of commonly accepted rules and standards of behaviour. Some of these are ‘explicit’ and legally binding (e.g stealing/murdering etc.) and some are ‘implicit’ but not legally binding (e.g. queuing etc.) behavior that deviates from that standard is considered to be abnormal behavior. But those standards can change with time and vary from one society to another. This basically means that behaviour is considered ‘’normal’’ if the majority considers the behaviour acceptable.

FF: The Failure to Function Adequately

Definition of abnormality defines whether or not a behavior is abnormal if it is counter-productive to the individual. The main problem with this definition however is that psychologists cannot agree on the boundaries that define what is 'functioning' and what is 'adequately', as some behaviors that can cause 'failure to function' are not seen as bad i.e. firemen risking their lives to save people in a blazing fire.

Deviation from Ideal Mental health

It defines abnormality by determining if the behavior the individual is displaying is affecting their mental well-being. As with the Failure to Function definition, the boundaries that stipulate what 'ideal mental health' is are not properly defined, and the bigger problem with the definition is that all individuals will at some point in their life deviate from ideal mental health, but it does not mean they are abnormal; i.e., someone who has lost a relative will be distressed, but would not be defined as abnormal for showing that particular behavior. On the contrary, there are some indications that some people require assistance to grieve properly.

Maladaptiveness of behavior

This criteria is how the behavior affects the well-being of the individual and/or social group. behavior that is out of control or interfering with normal social or occupational functioning This definition suggests that failing to cope with everyday life (washing, getting out of bed, eating, generally taking care of one’s self) is an indication of psychopathology. Society has a collective opinion on how others should lead their lives. Behavior that is dangerous to oneself or to others Examples are a man who attempts suicide, an alcoholic who drinks so heavily that he or she cannot keep a job or a paranoid individual who tries to assassinate national leaders.

Personal distress

This criterion considers abnormality in terms of the individual's subjective feelings, personal distress, rather than his behavior. Most people diagnosed as 'mentally ill' feel miserable, anxious, depressed and may suffer from insomnia. In the type of abnormality called neurosis, personal distress may be the only symptom, because the individual's behavior seems normal. Unhappiness, anxiety, depression, etc. A common approach to defining abnormality is a Multi-Criteria approach, where all definitions of abnormality are used to determine whether an individual’s behavior is abnormal.

For example, if an individual is engaging in a particular behavior that is preventing them from ‘functioning’ breaks a social norm and is statistically infrequent, then psychologists would be prepared to define this individual's behavior as abnormal. A good example of an abnormal behavior assessed by a multi-criteria approach is depression: it is commonly seen as a deviation from ideal mental stability, it often stops the individual from 'functioning' a normal life, and, although it is a relatively common mental disorder, it is still statistically infrequent; most people will not experience significant major depressive disorder in their lifetime.

Updated: Feb 22, 2021
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Criteria of Abnormal Behavior. (2016, Oct 16). Retrieved from

Criteria of Abnormal Behavior essay
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