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What is Abnormal Psychology?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Abnormal psychology is a branch of psychology which deals with behaviors which are considered abnormal, along with psychological phenomena which have not been fully explained, such as dreams, altered mental states, and hypnosis. The goal of this branch of psychology is to understand the root causes of such behavior, to determine how and if the behavior should be addressed, and to develop a treatment plan which will help an individual patient. People who seek assistance from psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists benefit from their study of abnormal psychology. It is also a very interesting subject, for people who have a chance to take an abnormal psychology course in school.

The definition of “abnormal” behavior can be slippery, and it has changed radically over the course of human history. Mental and emotional disorders, maladaptive behaviors, and behaviors which cause significant discomfort are all studied in abnormal psychology. Psychologists have also developed a comprehensive guide to conditions which have been studied. This guide, called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, provides precise definitions of abnormal conditions, along with criteria for diagnosis and information about treatment options.

Various conditions have appeared and disappeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), illustrating changing attitudes about human behavior. At one point, for example, homosexuality was included in the DSM, under the argument that it was a socially maladaptive behavior which could be treated. Today, this argument is not generally accepted in the psychological community, and homosexuality has been struck from the pages of the DSM, while countless other behaviors related to gender and sexuality have been added.

People who work in the field of psychology usually want to improve emotional well-being for people who seek psychological help. When someone goes to the doctor for depression, for example, the doctor can use the DSM to diagnose depression, but the patient also needs assistance, which can take a variety of forms, depending on the individual psychologist's approach to the problem. People can also seek treatment for things like social anxiety disorder, anger disorders, and a wide variety of other conditions which impair quality of life.

The field of abnormal psychology recognizes that there are many influences on psychological development, including situational factors, environmental influences, and genetics. Their goal is not to force people to achieve “normality,” but to help people who struggle with mental and emotional disorders so that they can live more fulfilling, active lives. Some people work in research, studying people as a collective whole to learn more about human behavioral patterns, while others work as care providers, providing services directly to individuals.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By SilentBlue — On Dec 03, 2010


I agree that there are lines between what constitutes a cultural trend and what is a genuine psychological disorder, but when a person's behavior is inherently harmful to themselves and/or others, medication and therapy are often important solutions.

By Tufenkian925 — On Dec 02, 2010

How would a culture's definition of a "fulfilling, active" life contribute to its determination of what constitutes a psychological disorder or abnormal psychology? I think that we need to be careful, because if we apply our own standards to members of a different culture, we might end up saying that entire nations have a "psychological disorder." For example, if we see a tendency to lie as a hormonal imbalance, we might end up medicating hundreds of Cambodians who have necessarily learned to become pathological liars for the sake of survival during the Khmer rouge.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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