Tagged: AS Psychology AQA

Psychopathology: The Return of the “4th” Definition

Defining Abnormality

There are a few new (at time of posting) additions to the Psychopathology topic in the AS and A Level course for AQA but I thought I would blog about the return of the “statistical infrequency” definition of abnormality in the revised specification. This definition has a history of being in and out of the AQA spec and it is back, some might say rightly so, for September 2015.

Statistical Infrequency

Put simply the definition states that abnormal behaviour is statistically rare behaviour. Any behaviour that does not occur very often is regarded as abnormal and may indicate the presence of a mental disorder. So the focus is on the numbers of people showing the behaviour rather than the acceptability (Deviation from Social Norms) or the impact the behaviour has on day to day life (Failure to Function Adequately).

The AQA scheme of work suggests bringing in the normal distribution (from research methods) at this point, which makes sense. Most textbooks will include a normal distribution graph showing the symmetry of the distribution of IQ scores across the population. Obviously few people will have a very low IQ and few have a very high IQ and most of us are somewhere near the middle.   This would suggest that having a very low IQ (or high for that matter) would be considered abnormal.

Showing understanding by using precise language

In my experience students often make the mistake of referring to frequency of behaviour when they are actually describing the deviation from social norms definition (DSN). For example, I have repeatedly encountered reference to a behaviour being abnormal because “most people don’t do it” in student answers, mixed in with reference to the acceptability of the behaviour.  Although an unacceptable behaviour is also likely to be uncommon, this merging of concepts is dangerous territory for students as it can imply they don’t really understand the definition.

A useful activity to reduce the lack of clarity and emphasise the need for precise language involves displaying a set of behaviours and asking students to explain why each one in turn might be considered abnormal (or not) using each of the definitions. This could work as a sort of reverse Taboo game. For example, usually in the game taboo you would ban words that are relevant to the definition in order to ensure students can explain the concept rather than just rote learn some key terms. In this “reverse” version you could provide the name of the definition and a list of words related to the other definitions which must be avoided in order to be successful.

Students might find it useful to see sentences (e.g. those below) using precise language to ensure they understand the different angle each definition takes. Learners could then be asked to put these sentences in the context of the given behaviour.

Example writing:

Statistical Infrequency The behaviour could be considered abnormal because few people show this behaviour. As the behaviour is rare it may indicate the presence of a mental disorder. 
Deviation from Social Norms The behaviour could be considered abnormal because other people would find it unacceptable. As the behaviour goes against the implicit and explicit rules of society is may indicate the presence of a mental disorder. 
Failure to Function Adequately The behaviour could be considered abnormal because it impacts on the individual’s ability to carry out their day to day activities. This disruption to their daily functioning may be a change in their behaviour and may indicate the presence of a mental disorder.

 You could think of one for deviation from ideal mental health.

Evaluating statistical infrequency as a definition of abnormality

The specification no longer refers specifically to the “limitations” of the definitions so strengths and weaknesses should be considered in order to prepare for an “evaluate” or “discuss” question.

Strengths Weaknesses
The definition can provide an objective way, based on data, to define abnormality if an agreed cut-off point can be identified. Some rare behaviours are desirable and don’t seem to indicate the presence of a mental disorder. Having a very high IQ, having a STM digit span of 20 or having exceptional musical ability are all rare but actually highly desirable rather than “disordered”.
The definition (unlike DSN) does not make judgements about the acceptability of behaviour. The behaviour is rare rather than wrong. It can be difficult to know where the draw the line between behaviour that is frequent enough to be normal and rare enough to be abnormal. This makes the definition highly subjective. The definition also does not take into account the severity of the behaviour only whether it is common on not.
The definition is limited because some behaviours are rare in some cultures but not others. This suggests that caution needs to be taken when judging the behaviour of individuals from a different culture.

Using real statistics

Ask students to consider some real statistics related to the rates of diagnosis of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety disorders. Statistics are often reported in the media which show an increase in mental health issues and reference to the claim that “many” of us will experience mental health problems at some point over our lives is often made in campaigns which aim to reduce the stigma of mental illness (“Fact: 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year”, reported on www.time-to-change.org.uk). Asking students to interpret real data will not only develop their data analysis skills but will also give them the opportunity to identify a criticism of the statistical infrequency definition of abnormality given that some mental health problems may not actually be that rare. Students could discuss these statistics and comment on the implications for the definition. This could also include a discussion about the increases in self-harming behaviour in teenagers and whether this definition would imply this is becoming a “normal” behaviour for this age group. I would recommend seeking advice about how to manage this sort of discussion sensitively and appropriately (always assume you are teaching individuals who have self-harmed or who are self-harming to be on the safe side).

An article on the the role of culture on mental health reported that “the prevalence rates for major depression varied from 2 to 19 percent across countries” (Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity: A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General). Students could also discuss this finding in relation to the limitation of the definition regarding culture.

I’m sure there are lots of other useful stats out there! Share if you find some.

Useful links: