Definitions of abnormality


Here are some ideas for getting your students thinking about definitions of abnormality.

Getting students thinking

Ask students to draw and label a ‘normal’ student. After students have shared their images with each other as a class discuss the following questions:

  • Were there any common features in the drawings?
  • If so, why? Where does our idea of ‘normal’ originate from?
  • What features would need to be changed to make the student ‘abnormal’ (e.g. age, attitude to learning, number of subjects studying)?
  • How would students feel if an 80 year old joined their class as a student? (this question introduces the concept of how we feel when we are confronted with people who break social norms/are statistically infrequent, but using a neutral topic).

Introducing normal distributions

Provide students with one example of a normal distribution. This could be age of mother on birth of first child. Discuss how fewer first births occur in women under 20 and over 45 but numbers rise in between these ages to form a ‘normal distribution’.

The class could then score their level of fear for different animals to determine whether a normal distribution can be seen in their class for specific phobic items.

For example:



N.B This could also lead into a discussion of where such phobias may originate from which links to a later topic in this unit, ‘The behavioural approach to explaining phobias’.

Introducing statistical infrequency and deviation from social norms

Provide students with reading material relating to attempts to define abnormality using either social norms as a guide or statistical infrequency. Can students think of any behaviours that may deviate from social norms and/or be statistically infrequent but we wouldn’t consider them to be indicative of mental illness?

Evaluating statistical infrequency and deviation from social norms

Provide students with evaluative comments (taken from the CC page 99), to add to the AO3 grid shown below in the ‘explanation of the issue’ cells. As an extension students could think of their own example to illustrate the issue. The first one has been modelled for you.

Statistical infrequency

Identification of issue Explanation of the issue Example of the issue
Some behaviours that are uncommon in the population are desirable rather than undesirable. This definition merely shows which behaviours are frequent and infrequent with no comment made the desirability of the behaviour. Having a high I.Q is statistically infrequent but few would argue this is undesirable.
The cut-off point between what is seen as desirable and undesirable is subjective.
In some cases statistical infrequency can be an appropriate measure.

Deviation from social norms

Identification of issue Explanation of the issue Example of the issue
This definition of abnormality can reflect dominant social morals and attitudes.
Judgements of deviance form social norms should consider context and degree.
This definition is an improvement on using statistical infrequency to define abnormality.  


Image credit: By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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