What is Abnormal Psychology? Definition, History, Approaches, and Criticisms

What is Abnormal Psychology?

Abnormal psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on studying unusual patterns of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that may indicate a mental health condition.

In simple words, abnormal psychology is a division of psychology that studies people who are “abnormal” or “atypical” compared to other members of a given society.

Defining what is considered “normal” or “abnormal” can be complex since societal norms and standards can change over time. Instead of relying solely on these norms, professionals in this field, including counselors, psychologists, and psychotherapists, concentrate on the level of distress caused by certain behaviors, thoughts, or emotions.

Abnormal psychology aims to understand and address the mental illnesses and behavioral disorders that deviate from the norm. It focuses on conditions that impact individuals’ mental, emotional, and behavioral well-being, hindering their overall life quality. Additionally, abnormal psychology takes into account how these conditions can negatively affect the individual’s social environment and society as a whole.

By studying abnormal psychology, professionals gain insights into the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for various mental health conditions, ultimately striving to improve individuals’ psychological well-being and overall functioning.

What is Abnormal Behavior?

Abnormal behavior refers to actions or patterns of behavior that can cause difficulties in a person’s life or disrupt their relationships with others. When behaviors deviate significantly from what is considered typical or socially acceptable, they may be labeled as abnormal.

Also Read: The 4 Major Goals of Psychology

These behaviors often require attention and intervention from mental health professionals to help individuals overcome challenges and improve their overall well-being.

The followings are the common characteristics of people having abnormalities:

  • Persistent Emotional Distress: Individuals with abnormal behavior frequently experience ongoing emotional distress, such as anxiety, sadness, or anger, that significantly affects their daily functioning.
  • Impaired Functioning: Abnormal behavior can impair various aspects of life, including work, relationships, self-care, and social interactions.
  • Maladaptive Patterns: People displaying abnormal behavior may engage in patterns of behavior that are ineffective or harmful, such as self-destructive actions, substance abuse, or unhealthy coping mechanisms.
  • Deviation From Societal Norms: Abnormal behavior often deviates from the accepted societal norms and cultural expectations, leading others to perceive it as unusual or inappropriate.
  • Distorted Perception of Reality: Some individuals with abnormal behavior may have a distorted perception of reality, experiencing hallucinations, delusions, or disorganized thinking that disrupts their understanding of the world.

The History of Abnormal Psychology

The history of abnormal psychology dates back to ancient times when different cultures attributed abnormal behavior to supernatural causes. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that a more scientific approach began to emerge. In 1840, the first psychiatric hospital, the Institute of Psychiatry in London, was established.

Related: What is Psychology? Definition, Types, History, Uses, and Goals

The field of abnormal psychology progressed significantly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1892, Emil Kraepelin introduced a classification system for mental disorders, laying the foundation for diagnosing and categorizing abnormal behavior. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories in the early 1900s also contributed to understanding abnormal behavior and its underlying causes.

Throughout the 20th century, advancements in psychology and psychiatry furthered the study of abnormal behavior. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), first published in 1952, provided standardized criteria for diagnosing mental disorders.

In the 21st century, the field of abnormal psychology continues to evolve. Research, technology, and a more comprehensive understanding of mental health have led to improved assessments, treatments, and stigma reduction. The DSM-5, published in 2013, reflects updated knowledge and diagnostic criteria, highlighting the ongoing development of abnormal psychology as a scientific discipline.

The 4 Approaches of Abnormal Psychology

Psychoanalytic, behavioral, medical, and cognitive are the four main approaches/perspectives of abnormal psychology. Let’s shortly explain them.

Psychoanalytic Approach

The psychoanalytic approach, influenced by Sigmund Freud, explores how unconscious thoughts, desires, and memories shape abnormal behaviors. It suggests that hidden feelings can affect our conscious actions without us realizing them.

Therapists using this approach help individuals analyze their memories, behaviors, thoughts, and dreams to uncover underlying emotions that contribute to maladaptive behaviors and distress. By bringing these hidden feelings to light, individuals can address them and find ways to improve their well-being.

Behavioral Approach

The behavioral approach in abnormal psychology emphasizes observable behaviors. Instead of delving into the underlying causes, behavioral therapy focuses on reinforcing positive behaviors and discouraging maladaptive ones.

Behavioral therapists use techniques like classical conditioning and operant conditioning to address abnormal behaviors. By eliminating unwanted behaviors and teaching new ones, individuals can make positive changes in their lives.

Medical Approach

The medical approach in abnormal psychology examines the biological factors that contribute to mental illness. It emphasizes understanding the underlying causes, such as genetic inheritance, physical conditions, infections, and chemical imbalances.

Medical treatments, often involving medication, are commonly used alongside psychotherapy to address mental disorders and promote recovery.

Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach in abnormal psychology explores how our thoughts, perceptions, and reasoning patterns influence psychological disorders. Cognitive treatments aim to assist individuals in modifying their thoughts or reactions to promote healthier mental functioning.

By addressing maladaptive thinking patterns, cognitive therapies help individuals develop more adaptive and constructive ways of perceiving and responding to their experiences.

Related: What is Cognitive Psychology? Definition, History, Topics, and Careers

Topics in Abnormal Psychology

The followings are the common topics and disorders studied within the field of abnormal psychology, which aims to understand the causes, symptoms, and treatment of psychological disorders.

  • Anxiety disorders (e.g., social anxiety disorder, panic disorder)
  • Mood disorders (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder)
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder)
  • Neurocognitive disorders (e.g., delirium)
  • Personality disorders (e.g., borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder)
  • Substance use disorders
  • Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders
  • Eating disorders (e.g., anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa)
  • Trauma-related disorders (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • Dissociative disorders (e.g., dissociative identity disorder)
  • Sleep disorders (e.g., insomnia, sleep apnea)
  • Sexual disorders (e.g., erectile dysfunction, sexual dysfunctions)
  • Somatoform disorders (e.g., somatic symptom disorder, illness anxiety disorder)
  • Gender dysphoria and other gender-related issues
  • Impulse control disorders (e.g., intermittent explosive disorder, kleptomania)

Also Read: What is Clinical Psychology? Definition, History, Approaches, and Careers

Criticism of Abnormal Psychology

The field of abnormal psychology has faced criticism and raised important concerns. One of the main criticisms revolves around the use of the term “abnormal” itself, which some argue can stigmatize and marginalize individuals who are already vulnerable or oppressed. Critics also point out that this field tends to pathologize behaviors and experiences that may simply be variations of normal human behavior.

Another criticism is directed towards the medical approach of abnormal psychology, which often focuses primarily on biological and genetic factors, overlooking other influential aspects. This narrow focus can hinder a more comprehensive understanding of mental distress and limit the potential for holistic treatment approaches.

Furthermore, cultural relativism plays a crucial role in defining what is considered normal and abnormal behavior. The field’s failure to adequately account for cultural differences can result in misinterpretations and the imposition of Western ideals of normalcy onto diverse populations.

It is important for the field of abnormal psychology to address these criticisms and strive for a more inclusive, culturally sensitive, and comprehensive approach that recognizes the complexity and diversity of human experiences.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abnormal_psychology
  2. https://onlinedegrees.nku.edu/articles/psychology/what-is-abnormal-psychology.aspx
  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Mental illness.
  4. Jahoda, M. (1958). Current concepts of positive mental health.
  5. Rosenhan, D. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1989). Abnormal Psychology Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton.
  6. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-abnormal-psychology-2794775

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