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Abnormal Behavior for AP Psychology

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Review questions for this study guide can be found at:

Abnormal Behavior Review Questions for AP Psychology

Defining Abnormal Behavior

Defining abnormal behavior and showing how it is different from normal behavior is difficult and controversial. A common definition of abnormal behavior is behavior that is personally disturbing or disabling, or culturally so deviant that others judge it as maladaptive, inappropriate, or unjustifiable. Atypical or deviant means that, statistically, the behavior is rare and has a very low probability of occurring. Legally, insanity is an inability to determine right from wrong. This may result in commitment because insane individuals are frequently a threat to themselves or to the community.

Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz sees classification of mental illness as reason to justify political repression, an extreme position that causes us to examine assumptions about what's normal and what isn't. David Rosenhan of Stanford University demonstrated that ideas of normality and abnormality are not as clear and accurate as people think. He and colleagues faked the single symptom of hearing voices to gain admission to mental hospitals in five states. They abandoned the symptom once admitted. They found hospitalization to be dehumanizing. Admitted with the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, they were discharged with the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia in remission (under control).

Causes of Abnormal Behavior

What causes abnormal behavior? Each perspective of psychology assigns different reasons. The psychoanalytic perspective believes abnormal behavior results from internal conflict in the unconscious stemming from early childhood traumas. The behavioral approach says abnormal behavior consists of maladaptive responses learned through reinforcement of the wrong kinds of behavior. Humanists believe abnormal behavior results from conditions of worth society places upon the individual, which cause a poor self-concept. Since behavior is influenced by how we perceive the world, the cognitive approach sees abnormal behavior as coming from irrational and illogical perceptions and belief systems. Evolutionary psychologists consider mental disorders as harmful evolutionary dysfunctions that occur when evolved psychological mechanisms do not perform their naturally selected functions effectively. Finally, the biological approach explains abnormal behavior as the result of neurochemical and/or hormonal imbalances, genetic predispositions, structural damage to brain parts, or faulty processing of information by the brain.

The Medical Model

Abnormal behavior is often talked about as mental illness. The medical model looks at abnormal behavior as a disease, using terms such as psychopathology, which is the study of the origin, development, and manifestations of mental or behavioral disorders; etiology, which is the apparent cause and development of an illness; and prognosis, which forecasts the probable course of an illness. The American Psychiatric Association used a medical model for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) that classifies psychological disorders by their symptoms. This guidebook for mental health professionals lists diagnostic criteria for 17 major categories of mental disorders, subdivided into about 400 disorders. DSM-IV enables mental health professionals to communicate information about individuals who suffer from abnormalities, and helps them decide how to treat an individual. DSM-IV is the 1994 revision (DSM-IV-TR, 2000) of DSM-III-R published in 1987. Early versions (DSM-I and II) were unreliable and invalid, but beginning with DSM-III, diagnostic categories have been clearly listed, assumptions about suspected causes of disorders have been eliminated, numbers of disorders have been increased, and diagnoses are given on five axes (dimensions). Axis I: Clinical Syndromes contains all of the major disorders including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse, and organic mental disorders. Axis II: Personality Disorders and Mental Retardation contains disorders such as obsessive-compulsive and mild retardation that could be overlooked when focus is on Axis I. Individuals can have diagnoses on both Axes I and II. The other axes deal with general medical conditions, psychosocial and environmental problems, and global assessment of functioning. Reliability of diagnoses has improved significantly and validity is considered to have been improved. Most North American third-party providers (medical insurance companies) require diagnoses from DSM-IV for payment of mental health benefits. Criticisms of the use of DSM-IV include the thought that "labeling is disabling," whereby diagnostic labels are applied to the whole person (e.g., John's a schizophrenic) rather than used to mean the individual is suffering from a particular disorder; and that categorization results in attributing characteristics to the individual that he/she doesn't possess, or in missing something important about the individual.

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