Abnormal psychology is the scientific study
of psychological disorders. These disorders affect the way people feel, think, speak, and
behave. The field of abnormal psychology is sometimes called psychopathology.
Standards of normal and abnormal behavior differ from society to society and change as
social conditions and customs change. For example, the practice of severely beating
children to discipline them was considered normal behavior for many centuries. Today, many
people consider such behavior abnormal and cruel.
Studies in abnormal psychology are conducted mainly by clinical psychologists,
psychiatrists, and social workers. These experts collect data by such means as personality
and intelligence tests, experiments, and case studies. One kind of case study, an
idiographic study, describes the behavior and thought patterns of one person. Another
type, called a nomothetic study, examines the behavior and thought patterns common to many
people who suffer the same disorder.
Theories of abnormal psychology describe mental illnesses, suggest their possible causes,
and propose certain methods of treating them. These theories can be divided into four main
groups or schools: (1) biophysical, (2) intrapsychic, (3) existential, and (4) behavioral.
Biophysical theories emphasize the importance of underlying physical causes of
psychological disturbances. Such disturbances include two main groups: (1) those due to a
medical condition, such as a disease or injury, and (2) those related to the use of a drug
or medication. In these disorders, the condition, drug, or medication is believed to cause
mental problems by affecting the brain or other parts of the nervous system. Biophysical
theorists think such factors also underlie mental disturbances whose causes have not yet
been identified. They believe many disturbances result from inherited physical defects.
Biophysical therapists treat mental disorders mainly with tranquilizers, antidepressants,
sleeping pills, and other drugs. They sometimes use electric shock or surgery on the brain
or other parts of the nervous system.
Intrapsychic theories focus on the emotional basis of abnormal behavior. Intrapsychic
theorists believe that conflicts in early childhood cause people to worry or have other
unpleasant feelings throughout life.
Psychologists use the term neurotic to describe people who sometimes behave abnormally but
can usually cope with everyday problems. Individuals who lose track of reality are called
psychotic. Some psychotics believe in very unrealistic ideas called delusions. They may
also think perceptions such as "hearing voices" or "seeing visions,"
called hallucinations, are real.
A treatment called psychoanalysis is often used to help neurotics and psychotics
understand and resolve their conflicts and anxieties. During psychoanalysis, the patient
talks to the therapist, who is called an analyst. In one technique, called free
association, the patient talks to the analyst about whatever thoughts, images, or feelings
come to mind.
Existential theories of abnormal behavior stress the importance of current experiences and
the person's view of himself or herself. Existential therapists try to help patients gain
insight into their feelings, accept responsibility for their lives, and fulfill their
Behavioral theories emphasize the effects of learning on behavior. Behaviorists use a
learning process called conditioning to change abnormal behavior. In this process,
behaviorists treat disturbed people by teaching them acceptable behavior patterns and
reinforcing desired behavior by rewards and punishments.
History. Since ancient times, people have attempted to understand and treat mental
disorders. Many early societies believed that demons caused abnormal behavior. Later,
people came to regard the mentally ill as dangerous persons with insufficient self-control
to be normal. Disturbed individuals were imprisoned, sometimes locked in chains, or sent
to dismal institutions called insane asylums.
During the late 1700's, the idea that abnormal behavior resulted from serious personal
problems began to be investigated. People started treating the mentally ill more humanely.
In the 1800's, people believed in possible physical reasons for different kinds of mental
disorders. A German psychiatrist named Emil Kraepelin became famous for his Lehrbuch der
Psychiatre (A Textbook of Psychiatry, 1883). This book classified various mental illnesses
according to their specific types of abnormal behaviors.
In the late 1800's and early 1900's, Sigmund Freud, an Austrian physician, developed
theories about the effects of unconscious drives on behavior. Freud and his followers laid
the foundations for both the intrapsychic school of psychopathology and psychoanalysis.
The Freudians became especially known for their use of free association to interpret
dreams, analyze memories, and make people aware of their unconscious conflicts.
Later in the 1900's, researchers proposed several other theories and treatments of
abnormal psychology. These proposals centered on the relationship of psychological,
physical, and social conditions in the individual and society.
Contributor: Leah Blumberg Lapidus, Ph.D., Prof. of Psychology, Teachers College, Columbia