Abnormal behaviour is characterised by the four D’s - Deviance, i.e., it is different from standard behaviour and does not comply with the norms; Distress, i.e., it is unpleasant and upsetting to the person and to others; Dysfunctional, i.e., it interferes with the individual’s ability to cope with the challenges of the environment and carry out activities in their daily life; and Dangerous, i.e., it is potentially harmful to the individual and to others around them. Abnormal behaviour is commonly defined as behaviour that is “away from the normal” or deviates from some clearly defined standards and norms. The latter definition indicates existence of certain standards of behaviour, which are, more often than not, derived from society’s idea of and expectations regarding ‘normal behaviour’.
This leads to the emergence of two basic but conflicting views regarding abnormal behaviour. According to the maladaptive approach, behaviour is considered normal if it fosters the well-being of the individual and eventually of the group they belong to. Well-being not only includes survival and maintenance but also growth and fulfilment. If behaviour is maladaptive, i.e., it interferes with the optimal functioning and growth of the individual, it is classified as abnormal. The second approach views abnormal behaviour as a deviation from social norms. It labels any behaviour that is different from society’s idea of proper functioning and breaks social norms and expectations, as abnormal. Although this view is more popular and commonly subscribed to by lay people, it is inaccurate - at least in the context of psychological understanding of behaviour.
The second approach makes it difficult to formulate a globally applicable definition and criteria for determining abnormal behaviour, as different societies have different norms regarding behaviour. It also makes it difficult to form a standard definition, as societies across the world are constantly evolving, thus changing the idea of what constitutes normal or abnormal behaviour. The biggest drawback of this approach, however, is the fact that it is based on the assumption that all behaviours that are socially acceptable are also normal, positive, and adaptive. With our history full of violence, sexism, racism, discrimination, and inequity, it can be said that this is simply not true. This belief has led to the wrongful classification of homosexuality as a psychological disorder, as well as the diagnosis of many disorders like female hysteria, which are now no longer recognised by medical authorities.
This approach also harms individuals suffering from disorders or displaying maladaptive behaviour. All behaviours that are different from society’s idea of normal behaviour are perceived negatively by the public, which creates a stigma regarding maladaptive behaviours and mental illnesses. This makes the individual hesitant to approach a professional if they suspect something. On the other hand, the maladaptive approach implies that a problem exists due to the individual’s vulnerability to the disease, and inability to cope with the demands of the environment. It further establishes the fact that psychological disorders indicate a failure in adaptation and should be viewed as any other illness.
Abnormal behaviour as deviation from social norms is a view that has dominated most of the history of understanding abnormal behaviour. However, the gradual progression to understanding it as maladaptive indicates a positive change in this field, which may eventually transform the way abnormal behaviour is perceived and classified.