One aspect of psychology is identifying abnormal behavior. Many people have asked what makes behavior abnormal.  There are four basic standards that are generally agreed upon as criteria for abnormal behavior for the field of psychology.  They are statistical infrequence, disability or dysfunction, personal distress, and violation of norms.  These four standards have been called by other names, but the meanings are all the same.

Statistical infrequence are behaviors that are infrequent but when they do occur, they are abnormal and are somehow psychologically linked to a reason. For example, I am claustrophobic.  Not just funny about being in small spaces.  I seriously do not like small places and can “freak out.”  If I had to take an elevator, I am the last person to get in and will stand directly in front of, and facing, the doors.  And I hold my breath.  If that elevator got stuck, I would have a series of panic attacks.  I am a professor and I have great control over my behaviors; however, being stuck in small spaces will evoke abnormal behavior.  That is statistical infrequence.

Disability or dysfunction are behaviors that are based on impaired thinking and rational decision-making. These are people who may not be able to get along with others, especially since these types of behaviors can interfere with basic, daily tasks.  Mental illnesses generally fall under this category.  People who are schizophrenic exhibit many abnormal behaviors such as talking to themselves or lashing out at people for no apparent reason.  People who have phobias that affect their day-to-day lives exhibit abnormal behavior, such as not touching other people, or being afraid of breathing the air (that’s called anemophobia).

Personal distress are behaviors due to abnormal individual judgment of functioning. These behaviors come from emotional discomfort.  For example, if someone is a hoarder, their behaviors are considered abnormal; however, through the abnormal behavior (hoarding), a person could have their stress eased by behaving abnormally.  A person could have had their child die, so this parent would not be able to function in a routine, daily manner.  That personal distress could also cause distress to others (wanting to get the guy who killed your son or be unable to take care of your other children).  Personal distress can also come in spurts, like you don’t feel well so you snap at people around you, even though you are generally very sweet.

Violation of norms are behaviors that can be seen as being deviant. These are behaviors that break social and cultural rules. The deviant side of this standard is chronic stealing, being unruly, inability or desire to recognize authority, murdering people, etc.  You get the idea.  There is another side to this standard which is not deviant.  I live in the Los Angeles area and everyone drives.  To see a man drive and a woman sitting in the back seat, even though the front seat is free, could be considered abnormal.  Women who cover themselves from head to toe can be seen as abnormal.  Or hugging trees to help save the planet can be seen as abnormal.  However, cultural diversity could affect what is perceived as the norm.
One last note.  Some abnormal behaviors can be placed in more than one standard.  For example, phobias can be considered part of all of the standards depending on the type of phobia like anemophobia compared to claustrophobia.  People who hear voices and talk to those voices can be in all the standards; may be infrequent, would be considered to have a mental illness or dysfunction, can cause personal distress, and most definitely is a violation of norms.

Professor Mercy