Historical Background of Abnormality.

Abnormality is the state or condition of being abnormal. The purpose of these models is to explain why someone is “acting like that.” Three major models that have guided us date back to the beginnings of civilization.

Humans have always supposed that agents outside our bodies and environment influence our behavior, thinking, and emotions. These agents—which might be demons, spirits, or other phenomena such as magnetic fields or the moon or the stars, These are the driving forces behind the supernatural model.

Although many have thought that the mind can influence the body and, in turn, the body can influence the mind, most philosophers looked for causes of abnormality in one or the other. This split gave rise to two traditions of thought about abnormality, summarized as the biological model and the psychological model. These three models the supernatural, the biological, and the psychological—are very old but continue to be used today.

1. The Supernatural Tradition of abnormality

In the Great Persian Empire from 900 to 600 b.c., all physical and mental disorders were considered the work of the devil (Millon, 2004). Barbara Tuchman, a noted historian, chronicled the second half of the 14th century, a particularly difficult time for humanity, in A Distant Mirror (1978). She ably captures the conflicting tides of opinion on the origins and treatment of insanity during that bleak and tumultuous period.

Demons and Witches

One strong current of opinion put the causes and treatment of psychological disorders squarely in the realm of the supernatural. During the last quarter of the 14th century, society as a whole began to believe more strongly in the existence and power of demons and witches. The Catholic Church had split, and a second center, complete with a pope, emerged in the south of France to compete with Rome.

People increasingly turned to magic and sorcery to solve their problems. During these turbulent times, the bizarre behavior of people afflicted with psychological disorders was seen as the work of the devil and witches.

It followed that individuals possessed by evil spirits were probably responsible for any misfortune experienced by people in the local community, which inspired drastic action against the possessed. Treatments included exorcism, in which various religious rituals were performed in an effort to rid the victim of evil spirits.

Treatments for Possession

With a perceived connection between evil deeds and sin on the one hand and psychological disorders on the other, it is logical to conclude that the sufferer is largely responsible for the disorder, which might well be a punishment for evil deeds.

The acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic was associated with a similar belief among some people, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Because the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is, in Western societies, most prevalent among individuals with homosexual orientation. Many people believed it was a divine punishment for what they considered immoral behavior.

Possession, however, is not always connected with sin but may be seen as involuntary and the possessed individual as blameless. Furthermore, exorcisms at least have the virtue of being relatively painless. Interestingly, they sometimes work, as do other forms of faith healing.

Somewhere along the way, a creative “therapist” decided that hanging people over a pit full of poisonous snakes might scare the evil spirits right out of their bodies. Strangely, this approach sometimes worked. The most disturbed, oddly behaving individuals would suddenly come to their senses and experience relief from their symptoms, if only temporarily. Other treatments based on the hypothesized therapeutic element of shock were developed, including dunking in ice-cold water.

2. The Biological Tradition of abnormality.

Important to the biological tradition are a man, Hippocrates; a disease, syphilis; and the early consequences of believing that psychological disorders are biologically caused.

The Development of Biological Treatments.

The biological origin of psychological disorders led, ultimately, to greatly increased understanding of biological contributions to psychopathology and to the development of new treatments. In the 1930s, the physical interventions of electric shock and brain surgery were often used. Their effects, and the effects of new drugs, were discovered quite by accident. For example, occasionally giving insulin to stimulate appetite in psychotic patients who were not eating, but it also seemed to calm them down.

Throughout the centuries, as Alexander and Selesnick point out, “The general pattern of drug therapy for mental illness has been one of initial enthusiasm followed by disappointment”.

Neuroleptics have also been used less as attention has focused on their many side effects, such as tremors and shaking. However, the positive effects of these drugs on some patients’ psychotic symptoms of hallucinations, delusions, and agitation revitalized both the search for biological contributions to psychological disorders.

3. The Psychological Tradition of abnormality.

It is a long leap from evil spirits to brain pathology as the cause of psychological disorders. This approach has a long and distinguished tradition. Plato, thought the two causes of maladaptive behavior were the social and cultural influences in one’s life and the learning that took place in that environment. If something was wrong in the environment, such as abusive parents, one’s impulses and emotions would overcome reason.

The best treatment was to reeducate the individual through rational discussion so that the power of reason would predominate. This was very much a precursor to modern psychosocial treatment approaches to the causation of psychopathology. It focuses not only on psychological factors but also on social and cultural ones as well.

Moral Therapy

During the first half of the 19th century, a strong psychosocial approach to mental disorders called moral therapy became influential. The term moral actually referred more to emotional or psychological factors rather than to a code of conduct.

Its basic tenets included treating institutionalized patients as normally as possible in a setting. That encouraged and reinforced normal social interaction. Thus providing them with many opportunities for appropriate social and interpersonal contact. Relationships nurtured carefully. Individual attention clearly emphasized positive consequences for appropriate interactions and behavior, and eliminated restraint and seclusion.


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.

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