What is Abnormal Psychology?

There are several different approaches in the field of abnormal psychology. Although some psychologists or psychiatrists focus on just one perspective, many others use elements from different areas to understand and better treat psychological disorders.
What is Abnormal Psychology?

Last update: 28 August, 2020

You’ve probably never heard the term abnormal psychology before. However, as we’ll see in this article, abnormal psychology is very well-known. To understand this particular field, you have to understand what we mean we say “abnormal”. At first glance, it seems obvious. Abnormal means something that is out of the ordinary.

Abnormal psychology focuses on the study and treatment of mental and emotional disorders that interfere with a person’s ability to feel like themselves and carry out their day-to-day functions. These disorders might be the result of physical or emotional trauma, genetics, or a chemical imbalance in the brain. People who suffer from these disorders generally require pharmacological treatment, psychotherapy, or both.

Thus, abnormal psychology studies people who are “abnormal” or “atypical” in comparison to members of a particular society.

The different approaches to abnormal psychology

Abnormal psychology has several different approaches. Though some psychologists or psychiatrists focus on just one perspective, many others use elements from different areas to understand and better treat psychological disorders. These perspectives are the psychoanalytic approach, the behavioral approach, the medical/biological approach, and the cognitive approach.

The psychoanalytical approach

The psychoanalytical perspective of abnormal psychology stemmed from Sigmund Freud‘s theories. The main ideas of this approach include Freud’s belief that abnormality comes from psychological and not physical causes. He believed that unresolved conflict between the ego and the superego could lead to abnormality.

The psychoanalytical approach suggests that many abnormal behaviors stem from unconscious thoughts, desires, and memories. Although these things are unconscious, they still influence our conscious actions.

Professionals who follow this particular approach believe that analyzing memories, behavior, thoughts, and even dreams can help treat people’s psychological problems. They believe that these things lead to maladaptive behavior and anxiety.

A cartoon drawing of Freud.

Behavioral approach

The behavioral approach focuses on observable behavior. Behaviorists believe that your experiences largely condition your actions. They don’t think that your actions stem from the underlying pathology of unconscious forces. As a result, they think that abnormality manifests when an individual develops maladaptive (detrimental) behavior patterns.

This perspective puts the emphasis on the environment and looks at how the individual acquires abnormal behavior. Behaviorism argues that all behavior (including abnormal behavior) is learned from the environment. They also believe that anyone can “unlearn” a behavior. That, in fact, is how they treat abnormal behavior.

In behavioral therapy, professionals focus on reinforcing positive behavior. They also try to eliminate anything that’s reinforcing maladaptive behavior. In this sense, the behavioral approach sets aside any kind of influence from information processing. Instead, it focuses on precedents (stimuli/reinforcement) and consequences (behavior).

The medical/biological approach

The medical/biological approach believes that disorders have an organic or physical cause. The professionals who follow it focus on finding biological causes for mental illnesses. This perspective stresses the understanding of a disorder’s underlying cause. They argue that the origin of any disorder could be genetic or caused by a related physical condition, infection, or chemical imbalance.

This approach argues that mental disorders are related to the physical structure and functioning of the brain. Consequently, they treat these disorders with medication. However, many professionals use medication along with some kind of psychotherapy.

Cognitive approach

The cognitive approach focuses its attention on the influence and power that our thoughts have on how we feel and behave. This perspective studies how the brain processes information and the impact that processing has on behavior.

According to this approach:

  • Defective or irrational cognitions cause maladaptive behavior.
  • The thoughts a person has about a problem, rather than the problem itself, is what causes mental disorders.
  • Individuals can overcome mental disorders if they learn to use more appropriate cognitions.

The cognitive approach sees the individual as an active information processor. The way that a person perceives, anticipates, and evaluates events is what conditions their behavior. What’s more, this approach argues that many of our thoughts are automatic, without us even realizing it.

A patient of abnormal psychology.

Abnormality and atypical behavior

Abnormal psychology focuses on atypical behavior. However, it doesn’t aim to guarantee that everyone fits into a narrow definition of “normal”. In most cases, it focuses on identifying and treating problems that cause anxiety or problems in some aspect of a person’s life. So, when researchers and therapists identify what is “abnormal” (i.e. the thing that is causing harm) they can treat the patient properly.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.