The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science by W. Edward Craighead and Charles B. Nemeroff pdf – third ed.
The purpose of the Encyclopedia is to provide succinct summaries of information regarding the most important topics in Psychology and Neuroscience for the reader. We hope this concise edition will make that material available to an even wider audience.
From time immemorial, individuals have recognized a small minority of members of their societies as psychologically “abnormal.” The research of Jane Murphy (1976) further demonstrates that people in non-Western cultures, such as the Yorubas of Nigeria and the Yupic-speaking Eskimos of Alaska, readily recognize certain behaviors as abnormal. Moreover, many of these behaviors, such as talking to oneself, are similar to those regarded as abnormal in Western society. Murphy’s findings suggest that the concept of abnormality is not entirely culturally relative.
Nevertheless, these observations leave unanswered a crucial question: What is abnormality? Surprisingly, a definitive answer to this question remains elusive. In this entry, we examine several conceptualizations of abnormality and their strengths and weaknesses. All of these conceptualizations strive to provide a definition of abnormality that encompasses both physical and mental disorders, although most place primary emphasis on the latter.
The first and most radical conception examined here is that abnormality is entirely a function of societal values. According to this subjective values model, which has been championed by Thomas Szasz (1960), abnormal conditions are those deemed by society to be undesirable in some way.
Although this model touches on an important truth— namely, that many or most abnormal conditions are perceived as undesirable—it does not explain why many socially undesirable behaviors, such as rudeness, laziness, and even racism, are not perceived as pathological. A comprehensive definition of abnormality involves more than subjective values. This fact helps to explain in part why Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint’s (2002) recent efforts to include extreme racism in the current diagnostic manual have met with little success.
Proponents of a statistical approach, such as Henry Cohen (1981), posit that abnormality can be defined as statistical deviation from a norm. Thus, any behavior that is rare is abnormal. Although this conceptualization is appealing in its simplicity, it suffers from several shortcomings. First, the cutoff points for abnormality are scientifically arbitrary. Should abnormality be defined as the uppermost 1% of the population, the uppermost 3%, or some other figure? Second, a statistical approach provides no guidance regarding which dimensions are relevant to psychopathology. As a consequence, it erroneously classifies high levels of certain socially desirable dimensions, such as creativity and altruism, as abnormal. Third, a statistical approach mistakenly classifies all common conditions as normal. For example, it implies that the bubonic plague (“Black Death”), which killed approximately one third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, was not abnormal because it was widespread.
Some writers, such as F. Kraupl Taylor (1971), have embraced the pragmatic position that abnormality is nothing more than the set of conditions that professionals treat. According to this view of disorder as whatever professionals treat, psychologically abnormal conditions are those that elicit intervention from mental health professionals. Although this view avoids many of the conceptual pitfalls of other definitions, it does not explain why many conditions treated by professionals, such as pregnancy, a misshapen nose corrected by plastic surgery, and marital conflict, are not per se regarded as pathological….
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