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Psychology definition of abnormal behavior

Defining Abnormal Behavior. Attempts to define abnormal, deviant, disordered, or psychopathological behavior in psychology have largely been disastrous, although this process is necessary to develop a classification system. Any number of attempts ranging from statistical to theoretical positions have been made; all cause more confusion than clarification. One possible solution to this problem is Wakefield’s notion of ‘‘harmful dysfunction,’’ which is similar to the definition used by the DSM-IV. A definition of abnormal behavior should be quite distinct from models or theories of behavior or abnormal behavior, contrary to the claims of Follette and Houts.

A definition of abnormal behavior is used to identify the domain (i.e., what it is) that theories or models attempt to explain (i.e., the causes or mechanisms of the disorder).

Abnormal behavior defined in terms of a theory or causal model eliminates the possibility of empirically evaluating the theory or contrasting it with other explanations or theories of the behavior. If abnormal behavior is ‘‘mental illness,’’ then by definition only a medical model is an appropriate explanation. Other definitions such as a ‘‘learned habit’’ or ‘‘residual deviance’’ cause similar problems. To avoid tautology, universal, plausible, ‘‘atheoretical’’ definitions and diagnostic criteria were important goals of individuals who devised the recent diagnostic and statistical manuals. Wakefield’s analysis of the concept of disorder is one possible solution to this problem. He states, ‘‘a disorder exists when the failure of a person’s internal mechanisms to perform their functions, as designed by nature, impinges harmfully on the person’s well-being, as defined by social values and meaning’’ The ‘‘harmful dysfunction’’ notion is similar to the definition of disorder used by the DSM-IV. It requires two necessary conditions for a diagnosis of a disorder: ‘‘dysfunction’’ and ‘‘negative consequences.’’

This definition addresses a number of vexing problems in defining abnormal behavior. We shall address a few of them.

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