A Basic Introduction to Abnormal Psychology

Robert Fettgather
3 min readMar 27, 2023

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Abnormal psychology is a distinct branch of psychology focused on atypical behavioral patterns and uncommon emotions and thoughts that may qualify as mental disorders. The term “abnormal” is not used in a strictly colloquial sense but often refers to a spectrum of clinical standards and definitions. To this end, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual is an invaluable tool for abnormal psychologists. Researchers and clinicians must not forget to augment general statistical analysis with cultural variations in mind, as the standards for normalcy and morality can vary from one community to another.

Similarly, abnormal psychology’s concept and overarching mission has changed significantly, along with the conceptions of normal behavior in a functioning human society. Historically, abnormal psychology was preceded by various religious traditions including shamanism that involved rituals such as incantations and exorcisms. Trephining, involving drilling a hole directly into the skull, was utilized as an attempt to promote healing by the early Greeks and the Chinese.

People often interpret abnormal psychology as subnormal or supernormal. As one might imagine, subnormal behavior is behavior below the expected norms. In contrast, supernormal behavior is behavior that exceeds the standard range. Neither term should hold either negative or positive connotations.

Another key focus for abnormal psychologists involves the distinction between adaptive and maladaptive behaviors. Adaptive behavior serves individuals in their interactions with other humans and accommodates a standard lifestyle in normal environments. Adaptive behaviors also make it possible for a person to communicate with others in these environments effectively.

By comparison, maladaptive behavior does not serve individuals in standard environments as they interact with other community members. For abnormal psychologists, maladaptive behavior is indicative of one of two issues. First, an issue in the person’s life or surroundings has forced them to take on otherwise unhealthy behavior. Secondly, the person struggles to cope with expected environmental stress in healthy ways and has instead developed a maladaptive coping technique.

Psychopathology is comparable to abnormal psychology, as the two are closely related concepts. Psychopathology is the focus on the underlying disease processes or pathology, causing the abnormal behavior.

Abnormal psychologists may study several clinical and personality disorders. One of the most common behavioral disorders in the United States is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD refers to impulsive actions and the inability to focus on a single topic or activity. It is usually diagnosed and treated in childhood, with a prevalence rate of approximately 9.4 percent. However, a 2019 study found that ADHD prevalence in adults had nearly reached 1 percent, doubling over a decade. It is not clear whether the trend represents sound medicine or diagnostic inflation.

Personality disorders include obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), narcissistic personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Interestingly, OCPD is different than a similarly named disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). OCPD is characterized by a preoccupation with perfectionism and a staunch dedication to rules and standards. Behaviors associated with OCD include repeated obsessions and compulsions. Treatment options for OCD generally involve exposure and response prevention, cognitive behavioral therapy, and a regimen of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

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Robert Fettgather
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Dr. Robert Fettgather holds a PhD in psychology, master’s degrees in psychology and special education, and a bachelor of arts in psychology.