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What is Abnormal Psychology? - Definition and Common Disorders Studied

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  • 0:07 What is Abnormal Psychology?
  • 1:07 What Causes Abnormality?
  • 2:32 Common Disorders
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

What is abnormality? How do psychologists study abnormality? In this lesson, we will define abnormal psychology, look at two theories to explain what causes abnormality and examine three examples of disorders studied in abnormal psychology.

What Is Abnormal Psychology?

Imagine that you are in a coffee shop. You wait patiently in line, you order your drink, you pick up your drink and then you sit and sip it quietly. Others around you do the same thing, and you are able to sit peacefully and read a book or listen to music. In other words, it's a pretty normal afternoon in the cafe. But, what if someone did not stick to the script? What if a man cut in front of everyone in line? Or, what if a woman suddenly starts yelling out nonsense words? Would you still consider it a normal afternoon?

Psychology is the study of human thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Abnormal psychology is the study of abnormal thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Abnormal thoughts, feelings and behaviors may or may not be part of a larger mental illness, or psychopathology. But, psychologists who study abnormal psychology usually work to treat people who have some type of mental illness, even if it's just a temporary case of the blues.

What Causes Abnormality?

Think about the lady in the coffee shop, yelling out nonsense words. Why would anyone do that? What's wrong with her? There are two theories about what causes abnormality: the somatogenic theory and psychogenic theory.

Somatogenic theory states that abnormality is caused by a biological disorder or illness. In the example above, somatogenic theory would say that there's something wrong with her brain. Perhaps she has damage to the left side of her brain, which causes language disorders. Or, maybe she has damage to the bottom part of the front of the brain, which makes people do things that are socially inappropriate. Either way, somatogenic theory explains abnormality in terms of physical causes. As such, a somatogenic approach to abnormality often focuses on using drugs, surgery or other physical therapies to treat psychological disorders.

Compare that to psychogenic theory, which says that abnormality stems from psychological problems. For example, Sigmund Freud might say that the woman in the cafe has an underdeveloped superego, which means that she can't stop her urges like wanting to call out in a public place. Treatment for abnormality based on psychogenic theory includes talk therapy and hypnosis.

Of course, most psychologists don't believe in one theory or the other. Most psychologists believe in one theory more than the other, but will admit that they both play a role in abnormality.

Common Disorders

As we said before, abnormal psychology deals with all sorts of abnormality. Three common disorders that abnormal psychology covers are schizophrenia, antisocial personality disorder and depression.

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