In a linguistic interpretation the definition of abnormal behavior refers to the statistically most common and acceptable behavior of an individual in a specific context or setting. Although clear and uncomplicated at face value, this classification has inherent problems and ambiguities per se. Not only is there a disagreement on what constitutes abnormal behavior amongst scholars, but also the classification of symptoms and syndromes thereof.
According to Butcher, Mineka and Hooley (2007) behavior is considered abnormal if it contains certain elements. There needs to be a presence of psychological distress, behavior is poorly adapted to environment or circumstances and is statistically unexpected. It often breaches values of society and apparently lacks control. In the determination it is also important to take changing societal norms and expectations into account.
Although the American Psychological Association (DSM-IV) acknowledges that there is no clearly defined boundaries for the identification and diagnoses of mental disorders, an attempt is made to define abnormal behavior (2000). Elements of distress and dysfunction have to be present and behavior has to be unpredictable and unacceptable in the particular societal setting.
In scholarly writing three opposing schools of thought exist on the definition of abnormal behavior. Ossorio (2006) surmises that normal behavior makes sense to observers and participants and defines mental disorder as the lack of ability to act with purpose. Wakefield (2006) criticized Ossorio’s definition as there are many other limitations to behavior in normal functioning, such as lack of knowledge and skills and therefore considers the definition to be too broad and subjective. As an alternative the definition of “harmful dysfunction” is proposed. In stark contrast Szasz (1994) dismisses that abnormal behavior is caused by mental illness altogether and labels the idea as a “myth” and a rejection of personal responsibility.
It is my conclusion that behavior must be detrimental to the individual or others, unexpected or without apparent purpose and in violation of society’s common norms and values to be considered abnormal.
A classification built on a less subjective and ambiguous understanding of abnormal behavior will better enable determination of cause and treatment based on scientific principles. This is critical to accurate diagnoses and successful treatment (Adams, Luscher and Bernat, 2002) and extreme caution must be taken against over diagnoses and poorly verified classifications, precisely what the DSM-V has recently attracted significant criticism for (Shorter, 2010).
Adams, H.E., Luscher, K.A. and Bernat, J.A. (2002). The Classification of Abnormal Behavior: An Overview. In Sutker, P.B. and Adams, H.E. (Eds.), Comprehensive Handbook of Psychopathology (pp. 3-28). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Butcher, J.N., Mineka, S. and Hooley, J.N. (2007). Abnormal Psychology. Boston: Pearson Education Inc, 13th Ed.
Ossario, P.G. (2006). The Behavior of Persons. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Descriptive Psychology Press.
Shorter, E. (2010, February 27). Why Psychiatry Needs Therapy. The Wall Street Journal (Europe Edition).
Szasz, T. (1994). Mental Illness is Still a Myth. Society, 31(4), pp. 34-39.
Wakefield, J.C. (2006). Normal Inability Versus Pathological Disability: Why Ossorio’s Definition of Mental Disorder is Not Sufficient. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 4(3), pp. 249-258.