Sunday, May 8, 2011

Historical Perspectives of Abnormal Psychology

Abnormal psychology focuses on abnormal behavior, its definition, classifications, explanations, and treatment (Hansell & Damour, 2008). Although its history is merely 100 years old, its story is richly textured. During its evolution, decisions regarding areas of focus evolved into six core concepts that enabled a more accurate definition of the field. To fully understand the scope and significance of contemporary abnormal psychology one must consider psychopathology and its origins, its distinct evolution, and the theoretical models of abnormality, which, in their diversity, attempt to treat those suffering from various disorders.

Origins of Abnormal Psychology

The relatively young science of abnormal psychology has existed for approximately one hundred years although many forms of mental illness have been recorded throughout history. Stories from biblical times describe suffering similar to contemporary illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia (Bark, 1988; Kahn, 1975, as cited by Hansell & Damour, 2008). One of the earliest known explanations for mental illness in primitive cultures was animism, predicated on belief in the power of the spirit world (Hansell & Damour, 2008). According to this view, mental affliction was associated with possession by an evil or hateful spirit. Archeologists have documented evidence of a treatment called trephination as early as 3000 BCE. This medical procedure consisted of boring holes into the skull to release the offending spirit (Hansell & Damour, 2008). Although this treatment seems archaic and primitive, in a world in which the spirit permeated life, it seemed a logical way to release the entrapped spirit. According to historic relativism, this was a normal reaction to a debilitating problem.

Challenges to Defining and Classifying Normal and Abnormal Behavior

Behavior vacillates on a wide spectrum between expected and accepted behavior and its abnormal counterpart, and identifying the point at which behavior deviates from normal and becomes abnormal is challenging. According to Hansell and Damour (2008), abnormal behavior is often an exaggerated normal state with many shades of gray between it and its normal complement. Adding further challenge to differentiating between the two is the changing palette and cultural texture of humankind as it moves through time. Relativism, is the notion that normalcy and abnormality is defined within the relative parameter of the culture and period in which the behavior transpires. As such, the perception of behavior is always changing and relative to the social, cultural, and historical context surrounding and immediately preceding the behavior (Alarcon, Foulks, & Vakkur, 1998; Cohen, 1998; Comunian & Gielen, 2000; Kagitcibasi, 2000; Kim, 2000, as cited by Hansell & Damour, 2008). Behavior and thinking considered pathological in one place and time is neither abnormal nor unexpected in another culture and period. The line of demarcation is somewhat arbitrary (Hansell & Damour, 2008).

To facilitate a more accurate definition of the field, six core concepts were created. These concepts include the importance of context, the continuum between normal and abnormal behavior, attention to cultural and historical relativism, understanding the benefits and impediments of diagnosis, understanding multiple causality, and the significance of the mind/body connection.

The Evolution of Abnormal Psychology into a Scientific Discipline

During the course of scientific evolution, in 460 BCE Hippocrates attributed mental illness to the imbalanced biological state of four fluids within the human body. Although flawed, his explanations were a significant step toward contemporary medical thinking (Hansell & Damour, 2008). Early biological theory influenced other Greek physicians to diagnose according to medical observations rather than folklore, anecdote, or spiritual belief. In the forward movement of the medical field, associations made between psychological symptoms directly resulting from biological causes inspired new thinking (Hansell & Damour, 2008).

Early in the twentieth century, two psychological perspectives emerged: somatogenic and psychogenic. The former claimed abnormal behavior had physiological origins, the latter maintained its causes were psychological ("Abnormal psychology - new world encyclopedia," n.d.). The study of hypnotism became a treatment of hysteria, and eventually attracted Sigmund Freud, who introduced his theory on conflicting unconscious directives and their powerful influence on behavior and thought processes (Feist & Feist, 2009). He eventually associated hysteria to such unconscious processes ("Abnormal psychology - new world encyclopedia," n.d.). Although his ideas had no scientific basis, his claim was the first comprehensive theory in abnormal psychology (Hansell & Damour, 2008).

Theoretical Models Related to the Development of Abnormal Psychology

Various theoretical models emphasize the importance of therapeutic relationships within the treatment process. Although these models converge and intersect, each addresses causality from a different perspective (Hansell & Damour, 2008). The psychosocial model addresses how individuals accommodate internal conflicting conscious and unconscious processes while interacting with their environment. It addresses the affects of such influences on behavior and often focuses on social relationships, immediate environments, and internal conflicts, concerns, and memories (Hansell & Damour, 2008).

The biological/medical model identifies a biological or physical association to mental disease and dysfunction. This model assesses the contribution of physical and biochemical functions in the human body, especially within the brain, as a means to understand how these functions relate to abnormal overt behavior and unobservable deviant mental processes (Hansell & Damour, 2008). The sociocultural model addresses the affects of social, cultural, and familial environments on individuals and their contribution to mental dysfunction and illness. This model accounts for the environment as a stressor and pressure, which exacerbates potential dysfunctions and provokes abnormal behavior. Sociocultural models focus on the influence of social norms and rules, communication, cultural influences, and religious beliefs (Comer, 2007).


From early animistic treatment to the high technology of medical science, psychology has continued to discover and apply new information and treatment as a means to affect the discomfort and dysfunction of abnormal behavior, and in its evolution, progressed to a scientific exploration. The six core concepts serve as a reminder that abnormal psychology is a science that aims to influence and assist people, even though studying the disorders and clarifying diagnoses is an equally essential ingredient (Hansell & Damour, 2008). Various theoretical models emphasize the importance of a broad therapeutic perspective that promotes a more reasonable and accurate understanding of the mysteries of abnormal behavior.


Abnormal psychology - new world encyclopedia. (n.d.). New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 05, 2011, from

Comer, R. J. (2007). Abnormal psychology. New York: Worth.

Feist, J., & Feist, G. (2009). Theories of personality (7th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Hansell, J., & Damour, L. (2008). Abnormal psychology (2nd ed.) [PDF]. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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