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Psychopathology- Abnormal Behavior

Psychopathology- Abnormal Behavior

Author: Erick Taggart

Recognize the key concepts associated with abnormal behavior.

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Hello, class. So in today's lesson, we're going to be starting our discussion about what is psychopathology. So psychopathology is the study of mental distress and disorders, and of abnormal and maladaptive behavior. So the important thing we're going to emphasize today is that abnormal behaviors.

Now psychopathology is probably one of the most popular views of psychology. It's something that people generally think about when they think of the field of psychology in general. However, it's important to note that this is only a small area of study, as you've seen throughout this course. It is a particularly important one though, and it's helpful, especially for people that are having some kinds of psychological problems.

So the question in this lesson is how do psychologists determine what is pathological, or in other words, what is abnormal behavior that needs to be treated under clinical psychology. So one of the biggest ways that we look at what is actually normal or abnormal is by seeing what the majority of people do or think within that certain kind of situation. In other words, we're looking at social conformity, or in this case we're talking about nonconformity to find out what's abnormal.

So social nonconformity means when a person does not conform or fit with the accepted social or group norms that are around them. So for example, if we saw somebody who is running down the street naked today, we would say that that would probably be social nonconformity because most people don't do that. And as a result, that person's behavior is abnormal. Now this is probably the most common way that we generally think about what is normal or abnormal behavior by what is acceptable or standard within those kinds of groups.

But it's important to note a few points about this way of determining behavior. So first, it's important to note that different kinds of norms and values can change over time with the development of new ideas and new things within that culture. So for example, with people it was once acceptable in the far past of the development of human beings to run around naked. It was only later on in history and the development especially of European ideas and civilizations that have influenced America that led us to the point where we don't really expect to see people running down the street naked.

It's also important that it can be dependent on the culture and especially the context or the situation that a person is in. For example, even within our culture there are times when it is considered acceptable to be naked in public. For example, if you're on a nude beach. That might be a time where you're allowed to break those kinds of general social norms.

And it also can differ from place to place. So from culture to culture they might have different values. For example, it's not acceptable here to be out in public naked but in certain areas of the world, for example, in some tribal African settings it might be normal for some kinds of nudity within public. So that can differ.

This isn't to discredit the importance of social values, but remember, just because something is different doesn't necessarily mean that it's bad or maladaptive. So in the examples we're giving, let's say somebody is into, say, the nudist lifestyle. So they might be naked at certain times, or they might go to nude beaches or things like that. That isn't necessarily to say that it's something abnormal or harmful. So you wouldn't necessarily call that behavior psychopathological in that way. So this isn't necessarily the way that psychologists use to determine generally what is considered abnormal behavior.

Another related term that we want to examine is "insanity" as an idea that relates to psychopathology and mental disorders. Now insanity, it's important to note, is actually a legal term. It's not a psychological or medical term. It's a legal term that determines whether a person is fit to stand trial and to be responsible for their actions within whatever the crime is that they're examining.

So for example, a lot of times people use the insanity defense, which is to say when a person is not guilty of a crime because they weren't in a mental state where they were responsible for their actions. A good example of this is what's called temporary insanity, where a person is so angry at the sight of something that they see that they're suddenly not responsible for their actions within that time. OK, so they're temporarily insane, and as a result they're not guilty of those things. But because this is considered a legal term and it's not necessarily a medical or psychological one, it's also a term that we don't generally rely on within psychology.

So as you can see it's not easy to determine what is abnormal or what constitutes a mental illness within psychology. In fact, there have been mistakes that have been made in the past. For example, in the DSM-III-- which is the manual that outlines what are mental illnesses for psychology-- in fact, homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness. It was listed under those mental disorders. And it wasn't later until the 1970s that it was finally removed and considered not to be psychopathological. It's important to note as a result of this that a lot times there can be negative effects or stigmas related to labeling people with certain kinds of mental disorders. So determining these things isn't something that we necessarily do lightly within psychology.

So the bottom line, or the most important rule for determining whether something is abnormal in psychology, or psychopathological is to say whether that behavior is something that is maladaptive. Which is to say that there are ways of thinking or acting that make it difficult for that person to adjust to the environment and their new situations around them. So they aren't very adjustable, and it makes day to day life very difficult for them.

So for example, in what we said about being a nudist, it's not something that's maladaptive for a person because it's not something that's going to affect their day to day life. It's not going to be physically harmful for them, and it's generally not very socially harmful either. It's not going to affect their relationships with other people because the nudist population, while small, is present. So they can have some kinds of relationships that are affective in some way.

However, if a person is running through the streets naked, it might actually lead to them having some kind of physical harm attached to them. Somebody might actually attack them or do something negative to them as a result. Or it can result in some kind of social or intellectual impairment that makes their day to day or their adaptive life very difficult. So the bottom line to remember when we talk about psychopathology is maladaptive behavior.

Terms to Know

A legal term which determines the mental “fitness” of a person and their level of responsibility.

Maladaptive Behavior

Ways of thinking or acting that that make it difficult to adjust to the environment and new situations, and make day-to-day life difficult.


The study of mental distress and disorder and of abnormal and maladaptive behaviors.

Social Nonconformity

When a person does not conform to or follow accepted social or group norms.