Definitions Of Abnormality, Including Deviation From Social Norms, Failure To Function Adequately And Deviation From Ideal Mental Health And Statistical Infrequency.

March 5, 2021 - Paper 1 Introductory Topics in Psychology | Psychopathology

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Definition 1: Deviation from Social Norms (DSN)

Norms are commonly expected standards of behaving in a society according to the majority.


Sometimes these are written (explicit) and form laws that govern behaviour. Sometimes though, these norms of behaviour are unwritten (implicit) but generally accepted (e.g. not standing too close to people at a cash machine).

Whether explicit or implicit, social norms allow for the regulation of normal social behaviour. All societies have standards, or norms, for appropriate behaviours and beliefs (expectations about how people should behave and what they should think).

This definition therefore, suggests that abnormality can be seen as someone who breaks these ‘rules of society’ (i.e. someone who doesn’t think or behave in a way that is accepted by that society).


Whenever behaviour breaks a “social norm” this is an indication that there may be some form of abnormality or may be a sign of a mental disorder.

Evaluation, AO3 of the DSN Definition:


(1) POINT: The Social norms definition can be questioned, as social norms change over time and therefore a behaviour that broke social norms and was considered abnormal in 1950 may not be viewed as abnormal today. EVIDENCE: Being an unmarried mother in the 1940’s and 1950’s would be breaking social norms and therefore this behaviour was classed as abnormal. Many of these women were sectioned as ‘moral imbeciles’ and society demanded that they “give up” their babies. EVALUATION: This is a limitation because as this example shows, it is not the individual who has changed but the classification of the behaviour by society. This brings into question the validity of using this definition alone to define abnormality.


(2) POINT: Social norms differ between cultures and this may be problematic. EVIDENCE: in British culture it is considered to be polite to finish the food on your plate at mealtimes. However, in India, to finish all food from you plate is a sign that you are still hungry. EVALUATION: This is a limitation because shows that what is considered ‘normal’ in one culture may actually be ‘abnormal’ in another. This means that this definition does not consistently produce an accurate definition of abnormal behaviour.

(3) POINT: The “deviation from Social norms” definition of abnormality is limited because it suggests that all behaviour which breaks social norms is “abnormal” and it doesn’t distinguish between socially deviant behaviour and mental abnormality. EVIDENCE: For example, someone found guilty of being a drink-driver may have broken a social norm, but they are not considered to have a mental abnormality. EVALUATION: This is a limitation because it shows that the deviation from social norms definition is inadequate in identifying abnormality as there are many behaviours that are clearly socially deviant but not psychological abnormalities.

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Definition 2: Failure to Function Adequately (FFA)


“Failing to function” is generally taken to mean that a person is unable to cope with everyday life. Their behaviour is seen as maladaptive (not good for survival), disrupting their ability to work and conduct satisfying relationships and causes personal distress, as well as distress to others.

Rosenhan and Seligman (1989) have suggested some key characteristics of ‘failing to function adequately’:

  1. Personal Distress  Most people who seek psychiatric help of any kind are suffering from a sense of psychological distress or discomfort (Sue et al, 1994) and a recognition that they are failing to function adequately.
  2. Observer Distress (or Discomfort)  Where someone’s behaviour causes discomfort and distress to others observing the behaviour.
  3. Maladaptive Behaviour Where someone’s behaviour interferes with their ability to lead a normal life (e.g. agoraphobia)
  4. Unpredictable Behaviour- If behaviour is unpredictable if it does not fit the situation or if it is unexpected and uncontrolled (e.g. sobbing for no reason or laughing at bad news).
  5. Irrational Behaviour If a person’s behaviour doesn’t make sense to other people (difficult to understand)

Evaluation, AO3 of Failure to Function Adequately:



(1) POINT: Failing to function does not always indicate the presence of a psychological abnormality. EVIDENCE: For example, someone who looses their job will not be able to get up and go to work/earn money for their family etc This may cause them personal distress but it does not indicate an abnormality. EVALUATION: This is a limitation as environmental factors may cause a failure to function rather than any psychological abnormality and this therefore questions the validity of using this definition to identify abnormality.

(2) POINT: However, the presence of an abnormality doesn’t always result in a “failure to function.” EVIDENCE: An individual with depression may still be able to hold a job and run a family successfully. There are many examples of celebrities who have suffered from psychological disorders who have had successful careers and who would not be considered as “failing to function adequately” e.g., David Beckham has OCD, Stephen Fry has bipolar disorder. there are people who suffer from abnormalities such as depression however, are able to carry out everyday tasks like going to work, looking after a family etc They do not necessarily display a failure to function. EVALUATION: This is a limitation because it shows that this definition is inadequate in truly identifying behaviours that may be considered abnormal.

(3) POINT:  Behaviour that looks as if it is a “failure to function” may actually be behaviour that is admired by some in society. EVIDENCE: Some political prisoners who go on a hunger strike as part of their political protest will often be respected. EVALUATION: This is a limitation because although starving yourself may be seen as irrational, maladaptive and unpredictable, it is understandable in a particular social context and therefore would not be classed as a mental abnormality.

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Definition 3: Deviation from Ideal Mental Health (DIMH)

This definition stands out by not defining abnormality directly. Instead, it attempts to define a state of ideal mental health (i.e., factors necessary for ‘optimal living’).

Marie Jahoda (1958) defined ideal mental health through a list of characteristics indicating psychological health and therefore the absence of the characteristics (rather than presence; as with the FFA definition) suggests abnormality.

Characteristics for ‘Optimal Living’:

  1. Strong sense of self-Identity  A psychologically healthy individual should be in touch with their own identity and feelings.
  2. Resistant to stress  Someone with ideal mental health should be resistant to stress and its negative effects.
  3. Self-actualisation  The mentally healthy individual should also be focused on the future and on fulfilling their potential (developing their talents and abilities).
  4. Autonomy  They should function as autonomous individuals, recognising their own needs and with an accurate perception of reality (i.e., to have the ability to act independently, to make their own decisions and to find satisfaction from within themselves).
  5. Empathy  The individual should show understanding towards others.

The fewer of these qualities you have, the more abnormal you are seen to be.

Evaluation, AO3 of the Deviation from Ideal Mental Health Definition:


(1) POINT: The definition is problematic, as the characteristics of Ideal Mental Health are seen as far too idealistic.EVIDENCE: Evidence to support this comes from Maslow (1968) who argued that only a few people ever achieve ‘self-actualisation’ and so the criteria is set too high. EVALUATION: This is a limitation because if this is true, most people are unable to achieve self-actualisation which means that the majority would be defined as being abnormal. However, if the majority of people are ‘abnormal’ then not achieving self-actualisation becomes ‘normal’ therefore indicating that the DIMH definition is a poor definition of abnormality.


(2) POINT:  The definition requires a subjective judgement on how many criteria need to be lacking in order to define someone as ‘abnormal.’ EVIDENCE: For example, one individual might consider a lack of 2 criteria to be abnormal, whereas another would consider lacking 4 criteria to be abnormal. EVALUATION: This is a limitation because using subjective judgement in this way, decreases both the reliability (i.e., consistency) and the validity (i.e., accuracy) of this method of defining abnormality.

(3) POINT:  The criteria used in the “Ideal Mental Health” definition, are based on Western culture and therefore the definition is ethnocentric.

Individualistic: Cultures that place their emphasis on personal achievement                                               Collectivist: Cultures that strive for the greater good of the community.

EVIDENCE: For example, her emphasis on personal growth and individual autonomy reflects Western, individualistic culture (e.g. North-American) and not collectivist cultures. EVALUATION: This is a limitation because it means that the definition is subjective and should only be used in the culture in which it has been developed, is not value-free and therefore may be biased.

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Definition 4: Statistical Infrequency

Statistical Infrequency Graph

This approach defines abnormality as a behaviour that deviates from the ‘average.’ The idea behind this approach is that the less frequently a behaviour occurs in people, the more likely it is to be abnormal. The difference between normal and abnormal is therefore one of quantity rather than quality the majority of people are normal with the minority of people being abnormal. The judgement of whether the behaviour is statistically frequent of infrequent is based on the mathematical principal of the normal distribution. It so happens that when measured and plotted on a graph, most human characteristics fall within normal distribution.

The majority of characteristics would cluster around the middle of the graph. Any characteristic in this region would be considered to be normal (statistically common). A minority of characteristics would be out at the edges, or tails, making them statistically rare and therefore a deviation from statistical norm.

Evaluation, AO3 of the Statistical Infrequency Definition:



(1) POINT: A strength of the Statistical Infrequency definition of abnormality is that offers the prospect of clear guidelines for identifying behaviours as normal and abnormal. EVIDENCE: For example, the definition introduces an element of objectivity into the process of defining abnormality so that different mental health care workers can all view the same kind of behaviour in the same kind of way. EVALUATION: This is a strength because it offers a more scientific way of measuring abnormality, reducing subjectivity and therefore leading to a more accurate way of defining abnormality.


(1) POINT: A criticism of this definition is that it suggests that anyone who differs from the ‘average’ is technically abnormal. EVIDENCE: For example, it doesn’t take into account the desirability of behaviours, highly intelligent people are statistically rare and are thus, according to this definition, abnormal. EVALUATION: This is a weakness as just because somebody falls outside of the statistically common area of the distribution curve, it doesn’t necessary mean that they are able. Therefore, suggesting that the statistical infrequency definition is not always accurate in defining abnormality.

(2) POINT: A weakness of this definition is that it can be criticised as being ethnocentric. EVIDENCE: For example, cultures differ in terms of what they consider normal behaviour. It would be very unusual for someone in Great Britain to take an extended rest period during the working day; however, in other cultures this is very common.EVALUATION: This is a weakness because the definition cannot be applied/generalised to every culture and therefore in using this definition it may lead to some individuals being inaccurately defined as being abnormal.

(3)  POINT: A further weakness is that the statistical approach definition requires a decision about the point at which a behaviour becomes statistically abnormal. EVIDENCE: For example, it is not clear at which point energetic and excitable behaviour from a child becomes a ‘problem’ behaviour requiring specialist intervention. EVALUATION: This is a problem as the definition is left open to criticism, such apparent arbitrariness makes it difficult to accurately define abnormality.

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