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Psychological Abnormality Defined

Sometimes we ask ourselves, “Am I normal?” I usually double-check whether I’ve closed and locked the door or not, which seems like I may have the so-called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  I’m also considered “arrogant” by Asian standards as I always speak my mind, thus some people consider me “narcissistic.”

From time to time, I wonder whether I’m “normal.”

What’s normal enough?

The question is: by whose standards are you “normal” or “abnormal” ? Depending on the society we live in, a behavior can be considered either normal or abnormal. In Japanese culture, honor is taken seriously, thus any incident that hurts one’s pride is worthy of self-killing or suicide. In the United States, however, the first thought that comes to mind whenever someone kills himself is: clinical depression.

Thus, culture determines whether one’s behavior or suspected “psychological pathology” is abnormal or not. “Milder” and “somewhat accepted” bizarre behaviors, for instance, may be called “eccentric” instead of “abnormal.” An artist who paints with his own saliva, for instance, may be considered “eccentric” instead of “abnormal.”

In general, the four common features of an “abnormality” are: deviance, distress, dysfunction, and danger.

Deviance. Any deviation from accepted norms in a society (or a culture) is considered abnormal. For instance, in western countries, talking to one’s self is enough to raise a red flag. However, in eastern countries where mysticism is considered an important part of life, talking to one’s self or appearing to have a different personality may be considered “the residence of a spirit in the body of a medium.” In psychological term, interestingly, the person is experiencing dissociative personality disorder. But in certain cultures, he might be considered a successful shaman.

Distress. Acting unusually doesn’t automatically make one “abnormal.” For instance, a solo world traveler rides his bike to 100 countries worldwide. We may think it’s “abnormal” but as long as it doesn’t give distress to the individual and others around him, it is simply “eccentric” instead of “abnormal.” When interviewed, the solo bike rider may even feel proud of his achievement as the first person who travels the world on a bicycle.

Dysfunction. Another test of “abnormality” is whether a behavior causes a dysfunction in everyday activities. Grieving may take a while to pass, but a clinical depression doesn’t seem to pass and the person is likely to withdraw from everyday activities and to stop communication with family members and friends at some point.

Danger. Whenever an individual poses a risk of danger to herself or others, then it’s most likely that she is “abnormal.” However, this variable doesn’t occur in every case of “abnormality,” as many psychological pathologies don’t result in suicide or homicide. Though it’s an exception instead of a rule, any threat to “kill” or “harm” one’s self or others is definitely a vivid red flag.

By understanding what constitutes an “abnormal” behavior, we should be able to observe ourselves and others in light of living the Good Life.



Comer, Ronald J. Fundamentals of Abnormal Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Psychological Abnormality Defined

This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on April 7, 2012.

Jennie S. Bev, MS

Jennie S. Bev is a trainer, author, columnist, and adjunct professor whose research interests include Positive Psychology and Constructivist Learning Theory. She is a multi-disciplinarian, holds an MS in Education from California State University Hayward (East Bay), and is currently pursuing a PsyD with California Southern University. She is the author of Kindle ebook Success with Positive Psychology. Her other works are archived on You can add her on Facebook and Twitter at @jenniesbevcom.

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APA Reference
S. Bev, J. (2019). Psychological Abnormality Defined. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 May 2019
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