Criteria of abnormal behavior

Abnormal behavior is defined as ‘behavior that is atypical or statistically uncommon within a particular culture or that is maladaptive or detrimental to an individual or those around that individual



There are four major criteria for identifying abnormal behavior in individuals, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), which is the most important text used by mental health professionals in the United States today. These four criteria are:

  • Violation of social norms
  • Statistical rarity
  • Personal distress
  • Maladaptive behaviors

None of these criteria is sufficient on its own; abnormal behavior is usually identified when it falls into several of these categories.

Violation of Social Norms.

Behavior that is in violation of social norms is often considered psychologically and culturally abnormal. There are many reasons why a person might perform such behaviors. They might be suffering from a mental illness, but they may also be responding rationally to unusual circumstances. They might be acting in an abnormal way as part of a performance or because of cultural ignorance if they are a traveler. Violation of social norms alone is not sufficient to diagnose abnormal behavior.

Statistical Rarity.

Behavior can be abnormal because it is statistically rare. Someone who is acting in a way that is very uncommon may be demonstrating abnormal behavior. However, cultural context is again important to take into consideration: some very rare behaviors are nonetheless considered normal within a given society, provided those witnessing the behavior can understand the rationale behind it. However, statistical rarity can be a helpful thing to consider when analyzing behavior. People with uncommon neurodevelopmental disorders may also behave in ways that are abnormal primarily because they are statistically rare.

Personal Distress.

An important thing to consider when determining whether a behavior is abnormal is whether it causes personal distress either to the person performing the behavior or to those around them. Personal distress alone is certainly not a sufficient marker of abnormality, as people behave in a wide variety of ways that distress them without stepping out of the bounds of normal behavior. But if an unusual behavior is causing or caused by personal distress, it is likely something that could and should be treated as, if not necessarily abnormal, at least potentially pathological.

Maladaptive Behaviors.

Maladaptive behaviors are defined as actions that inhibit appropriate personal growth. They are created to deal with challenging life circumstances and are usually a kind of survival mechanism. However, when carried outside of a particular context, maladaptive behaviors can become abnormal and can be harmful to an individual. Understanding the causes of behaviors and seeing if they are maladaptive in nature can help determine whether a behavior is abnormal.

There is no individual model that completely explains human behavior, or in this case, abnormal behavior, and so each model contributes in its own way. Here are the models we will examine in this module:

  • Biological – includes genetics, chemical imbalances in the brain, the functioning of the nervous system, etc.
  • Psychological – includes learning, personality, stress, cognition, self-efficacy, and early life experiences. We will examine several perspectives that make up the psychological model to include psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, and humanistic-existential.
  • Sociocultural – includes factors such as one’s gender, religious orientation, race, ethnicity, and culture.

1. Biological Model of Abnormal Behavior.

Various biological factors like genetic defects, dysfunction in the endocrine system, brain dysfunction, may together or individually become the cause of abnormal behavior. Research has found hat disorders like schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychoses are genetically transmitted. In the same way many other factors like extreme physical deprivation may also lead to psychological abnormality.

2. Psychological Model of Abnormal Behavior.

The role of psychological factors in causing abnormality is indirect hence it is difficult to measure. But various psychological factors like relationship with parents during childhood, their attitude towards socialization, peer group etc. may develop faulty identity, over-pessimism, over-indulgence or over-protectiveness in an individual.

3. Sociocultural Model of Abnormal Behavior.

A sociocultural model of abnormality emphasizes the social and cultural context, going so far as to suggest that abnormality is a direct function of society’s criteria and definitions for appropriate behavior. In this model, abnormality is social, not medical or psychological.

For example, early Greeks revered people who heard voices that no one else heard because they interpreted this phenomenon as evidence of divine prophecy. In the Middle Ages, people tortured or killed people who heard voices because they interpreted this same proclivity as evidence of demonic possession or witchcraft. Today, people treat those who hear voices with medicine and psychotherapy because this symptom is viewed as evidence of schizophrenia.

The biological, psychological, and sociocultural models of abnormality represent profoundly different ways of explaining and thus treating people’s problems. They cannot be combined in a simple way because they often contradict one another. For example, a biological model asserts that depression is due to biochemistry. The treatment, therefore, is medicine to correct the imbalance.

In contrast, a behavioral model asserts that depression is learned. The treatment, therefore, is changing the rewards and punishers in the environment so that the person unlearns the old, bad habits and learns new, healthy habits.


David H. Barlow, V. Mark Durand. Abnormal Psychology, An Integrative Approach. (7th ed).

Coleman, J.C. (1964), Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life, Scolt, Foresman, Chicago.

Kagan, Jercome and Julius Segal (1988), Psychology: An Introduction, Har Court Brace. Jovanovich Publisher, New York.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *