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There is no such thing as 'abnormal psychology'



As I’m technically on holiday, I’m cheating very slightly this week, with an edited snippet from my book.

I commute to work by car and unfortunately drive for quite long distances on motorways. So my journey to work (like, I suppose, everything else in life) depends on the operation of the laws of physics.

When it rains, we often see collisions and other accidental tragedies; the roads are slippery, it is harder to see. When people have accidents, the police investigate the probable or likely cause of the incident for legal and insurance purposes. Their analysis includes human factors, but also includes complex physics.

To work out why a tragedy has occurred, the investigators will calculate things like the velocity of the vehicles involved, coefficients of friction between rubber and tarmac, reaction times calculated using equations of acceleration and deceleration, the role of centrifugal forces, tyre pressures and ‘footprint’, the role of aquaplaning, lift, etc.

They will measure elements of the physical world; the weight of the vehicles, radius of turns, the slope of ascents or descents, whether the conditions were wet or dry, the temperature, tyre pressures, the condition of brakes and the nature of the road surface.

All these aspects of physics are important; they explain why accidents happen. But road traffic investigators don’t use a special branch of physics called ‘abnormal physics’. We don’t expect scientists to apply one special branch of physics to car crashes and differentiate this from the laws of physics that apply to ‘normal life’.

There is not an ‘abnormal coefficient of friction’ that leads to car crashes and a ‘normal coefficient of friction’ that keeps us safe. Instead, and wisely, we recognise that it is important to understand the universal laws of physics – such as friction – and then use that understanding to help design safer roads and to drive more safely as individuals.

The laws of psychology are similarly universal. Psychological principles apply to health and wellbeing and to distress and problems. There simply isn’t an ‘abnormal psychology’ that applies to distress or explains ‘illnesses’ and a different ‘normal psychology’ that applies to everything else. There is just psychology.

Everybody makes sense of their world, and does so on the basis of the experiences that they have and the learning that occurs over their lifetime. We all use the same basic processes to understand the world, even if we come to very different conclusions.

The patterns and contingencies of reinforcement – rewards and punishments – shape us all: the basic psychology of behavioural learning is universal. We all learn to repeat those things that are reinforcing, and we all withdraw from things that cause us pain.

We all construct more or less useful frameworks for understanding the world, and we all use those frameworks to predict the future and guide our actions. We’re all using the same processes of learning and understanding, and those processes have similar effects on our behaviour and emotions.

However, because no one is exactly the same as anyone else, or has exactly the same experiences, we all make sense of the world in slightly different ways, with different consequences. But that’s entirely different from suggesting that there is some kind of ‘abnormal psychology’.

Instead, because applied psychologists use their understanding of psychology to solve real problems in the world, we could talk about clinical or educational or forensic psychology - if we must. Or about the psychology of psychological wellbeing, or even ‘mental health’ or offending, or parenting… just say what we mean without insulting people.

But not, in my opinion ‘abnormal psychology’. I’m afraid I just don’t think there is such a thing as ‘abnormal psychology’.