Perspectives on Abnormal Behavior

Those in the field of abnormal psychology study people's emotional, cognitive, and/or behavioral problems. Abnormal behavior may be defined as behavior that is disturbing (socially unacceptable), distressing, maladaptive (or self‐defeating), and often the result of distorted thoughts (cognitions).

Several perspectives (models, approaches derived from data) and theories attempt to explain the causes of abnormal behavior.

The medical perspective. Those who hold a medical perspective focus on biological and physiological factors as causes of abnormal behavior, which is treated as a disease, or mental illness, and is diagnosed through symptoms and cured through treatment. Hospitalization and drugs are often preferred methods of treatment rather than psychological investigation. (Recent research linking biochemical disorders with some abnormal behaviors has provided some support for this approach.)

The psychodynamic perspective. The psychodynamic perspective, proposed as an alternative to the medical model, evolved from Freudian psychoanalytic theory, which contends that psychological disorders are the consequence of anxiety produced by unresolved, unconscious conflicts. Treatment focuses on identification and resolution of the conflicts.

The behavioral perspective. Those espousing a behavioral perspective contend that abnormal behavior results from faulty or ineffective learning and conditioning. Treatments are designed to reshape disordered behavior and, using traditional learning procedures, to teach new, more appropriate, and more adaptive responses. For example, a behavioral analysis of a case of child abuse might suggest that a father abuses his children because he learned the abusive behavior from his father and must now learn more appropriate parenting tactics.

The cognitive perspective. According to the cognitive perspective, people engage in abnormal behavior because of particular thoughts and behaviors that are often based upon their false assumptions. Treatments are oriented toward helping the maladjusted individual develop new thought processes and new values. Therapy is a process of unlearning maladaptive habits and replacing them with more useful ones.

The social‐cultural perspective. From the social‐cultural perspective, abnormal behavior is learned within a social context ranging from the family, to the community, to the culture. Cultural variables, acquired through learning and cognitive processes, are believed to be important in producing abnormal behavior. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia, for example, are psychological disorders found mostly in Western cultures, which value the thin female body.