What’s normal?

One of the key ideas of the Abnormal Psychology option is that normality and abnormality are not inherent qualities of a particular action, but rely heavily on context and the interpretation placed on them. This presents problems for diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders, and underpins questions in the exam, such as “Discuss the validity and reliability of diagnosis”.  The fact is that what is considered psychologically normal depends on the society and culture in which a person lives. There is an ongoing debate among psychiatrists involved in making diagnostic tools about how to define abnormality, and the criteria
are always changing as the acceptable norms change. The most familiar example is that neither homosexuality nor transsexuality is classified as a disorder in the DSM – 5, but social anxiety disorder (previously called social phobia and applied only to children) has been extended to include adults as well.

While most of you will be familiar with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Rosenhan’s covert PO study On Being Sane in Insane Places, this more recent BBC experiment is an interesting illustration of the debate. For the Horizon: How Mad Are You? series ten volunteers came together for an extraordinary test. Five were ‘normal’ and the other five had been officially diagnosed as mentally ill. The challenge for three mental health professionals was to work out who is who.


Here is an overview of the Abnormal Psychology option. Using such overviews helps you to track your progress through the material and plan how to meet the learning outcomes.


Tips for examining the concepts of normality and abnormality

  • Think about location (social context). What are the behaviours you can exhibit on the beach or at the pool that you can’t do elsewhere? How does this relate to normal behaviour and abnormal behaviour?
  • Think of examples of behaviour that used to be seen as abnormal and are now accepted.
  • If normal is what conforms to the cultural norms of a particular society – how can it be understood by a psychiatrist from a very different culture?

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