Social norms


The second of the four definitions is deviation from social norms.

This definition is reliant on the set of behaviours and moral standards of a certain culture. These rules can either be part of the law (e. g. not stealing, not vandalising) or can be implicit and conventional of a certain culture (e. g. in Britain not choosing to sit next to a stranger on an otherwise empty bus, not greeting people by kissing both cheeks). If a person goes out of the boundaries of these social norms by violating them (either the implicit or explicit rules) they are deemed to be abnormal according to deviation from social norms.

An example of such deviation may be relevant to a person suffering with schizophrenia- they may display inappropriate emotions, such as laughing after receiving bad news. This definition is useful for everyday recognition of psychological abnormality- when a person drastically deviates from expectations and their own idiosyncrasies friends or family are able to see that there is an underlying problem.

However, encouragement may then be needed in order to ensure the person asks for the appropriate psychological help.

The problems within a certain culture

Although this definition is good as it can easily be used to identify problems within a certain culture, if the same social norms were applied to a separate culture it may appear that everyone was abnormal. Social norms vary drastically between cultures- in Britain people respect personal space and avoid placing themselves too close to others, however in Italy there is no such implicit rule about how close you stand or sit next to a person.

If an Italian were to visit Britain they may think it unusual how close proximity is avoided by strangers.

To the Italian most British people would be deviating from the Italian social norms. This makes diagnosis difficult using this definition. The person must be judged by someone of the same culture and of the same understanding of social norms. The severity of the deviation must be judged as well. Some people may display idiosyncrasies that are unusual to others, except themselves and their friends. Deviation from social norms is used a social control in some countries, not as a true understanding of ill mental health.

Cohen (1988) found that in Japan those who were unwilling to conform to bettering the industry were sent to ‘loony-bins’. The ‘loony-bins’ were known to be brutal, dirty and overcrowded. This provided a threat to the people, and so more chose to conform even if they did not support the ideal of industrial success. Russia used deviation from social norms in a similar way in order to remove political rebels from the community. These people were deemed to be abnormal as they did not support the correct political party and conform to the Russian political and social structures.

The set of social norms

They were classed as insane and were sent to asylums to be detained, so that they could no longer interfere with the running of the country and could not influence others to rebel also. In every culture, although there are a set of social norms, deviation from these are not necessarily indications of psychological abnormality. Some people may deviate but merely be classed as having a slight eccentric character (they won’t cause harm to themselves or others, this is simply an idiosyncrasy) whilst others will display an actual pathological abnormality.

This suggests that only certain types of abnormal behaviour can actually be regarded as showing a psychological illness. Similarly the way in which a person acts may be considered abnormal due to its deviation from social norms, but when in a separate context the behaviour can be explained. A person choosing to lie on the pavement of a busy street may seem to be acting abnormally, however this view is changed as we learn that the person was studying how likely the local community are to help a person in trouble. What originally appeared to be a deviation from social norms is no longer classed as abnormal.

The differences in culture

As with differences in culture when applying deviation from social norms as a definition of psychological abnormality, difference in time period will also affect people’s opinions and views. Social norms change over time, so for older generations a certain behaviour may be categorised as abnormal, but for the younger generation of today it may be an everyday occurrence. An example of this is how previously it was frowned upon and unusual to be a single mother, however today the number of single mothers in the UK is constantly rising. Single mothers today would not be classed as abnormal.

Due to this, the person making the judgement may be biased. If they are of an older generation, they may see a behaviour to be abnormal or strange, yet to someone from a younger generation it is acceptable. Therefore the classification of a person as abnormal is purely reliant on the opinion of the judge. The difference between abnormality and criminality is often confused. Although criminality is deviation from social norms (the offender is not abiding by the explicit rules of the law) it does not necessarily indicate the presence of a psychological disorder.

A person claiming more benefits than they are entitled to is being fraudulent and is committing a criminal offence- however they would not often be deemed psychologically abnormal; their offence is understandable as they wished to gain as much money as they could from the government. A person who has committed a series of rape attacks would be deemed psychologically abnormal as their desire to rape women is an extreme deviation from social norms and causes a great amount of suffering to the victim- something that ‘normal’ people would not often wish to do and carry out.

It is considered that a rapist or murderer’s personality is displaying abnormality, not only their behaviour. If only the behaviour (not the character) was abnormal there is a suggestion that anyone would be capable of such an act. This is opposed by the fact that other people are either incapable of committing such a crime or are in control of themselves and so choose not to commit such a crime. There seems to be a key difference between those who would murder someone and those who wouldn’t, which must be caused by personality differences.

Most people have the capacity to pick up a knife and stab someone to death, however not everyone does- only those with a severe disturbance or psychological problem, other people have the ability to control themselves and prevent such a frenzy. Deviation from social norms can be used to monitor the behaviour of people in the same culture and in a known context by an independent judge. If the same judge were to enter a different culture or unknown context the reliability of their diagnosis of abnormality would be significantly less reliable.

As most people are biased in someway; whether it be age group, culture or otherwise, it is difficult to find someone who can be a truly independent judge and can make an unaffected decision. It may be possible to determine whether a friend or family member starts experiencing psychological problems, as there will be a deviation from their normal behaviour; however it is more difficult to make a similar decision based on the behaviour of someone who isn’t known as well. Deviation from social norms is so dependent on culture and other factors that this definition of psychological abnormality is severely limited.

The indication ideal mental health

However it does have its strengths in some particular circumstances. The third definition is deviation from ideal mental health. This was originally suggested by Jahoda in 1958, and was unique at the time as it did not focus on what it was to be abnormal but instead what it was to be normal. Six criteria were identified as indication ideal mental health, and it was suggested that anyone who could not show these qualities was likely to be suffering, or to suffer in the future, from a psychological disorder. These six criteria are outlined below:

  1. Positive attitudes towards the self- To understand themselves as a person, so that they can accept their limitations and possibilities; to have realistic view of themselves. The person has a positive, healthy attitude towards himself in the areas of self-confidence, self-respect, self-reliance and self-acceptance; they are able to live with themselves as the person they are. The person will like themselves as they are, and understand, as well as accept, what they truly are.
  2. Self-Actualization of one’s potential- (as proposed by Maslow- 1968) the understanding that every person has an individual potential that they should strive to fulfil. If a person is prevented from fulfilling this potential (either internally or externally) they may suffer from ill mental health.
  3. Resistance to stress- a person of good mental health ought to be able to cope under stressful situations. If a person is vulnerable to stress and anxiety their chances of experiencing a psychological abnormality at some point in their life is increased.
  4. Personal autonomy- the ability to rely on inner resources and remain stable despite hard knocks, deprivations and frustrations. An autonomous person will not be dependant on other people; they will be able to make decisions that are right for themselves and are not just to satisfy others.
  5. Accurate perception of reality- a person can see himself and the world in realistic terms, so they are not overly optimistic or pessimistic. Their vision of reality is not distorted, and so their behaviours are considered to be in keeping with others around them.
  6. Adapting to the environment- being able in all areas of life such as work, relationships and leisure activities.

The person is able to be flexible, not overly rigid, and is easily able to adapt/change. Deviation from ideal mental health allows psychologists to focus on the positive aspects of a person’s functioning. This outlines how a person with good mental health ought to act and think, and any deviation from these six criteria suggests psychological abnormality. This makes abnormality easier to diagnose to a certain extent as there is a standardised set of criteria that must be met in order to be normal- the judgement is not based so much on an individual’s opinion as seen with the deviation from social norms definition.


However, there is some degree of opinion involved, as a professional must determine whether or not a person fulfils the criteria. In one psychiatrist’s view there may be no deviation, but in another’s deviation may be significantly prominent. So although the standardisation is good, the diagnosis of ‘abnormal’ or ‘normal’ will still be affected by “who’s making the decision? “. The major limitation of this definition is the difficulty in reaching self-actualisation. There are very few people who can honestly say that they have met their full potential.

Fulfilment of potential may be influenced not only by oneself but by others around them; certain circumstances may be restrictive yet unavoidable. Due to this, the majority of the population would be classed as psychologically abnormal according to this definition. However, this is not true- a person can be happy and lead a well balanced life with good mental health but still never fulfil their true potential. This is not a failure on their part, and they do not require self-actualisation in order to live in a psychologically ‘normal’ way.

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