What Is the Difference between Normal and Abnormal Psychology?

Jessica Ellis

The difference between normal and abnormal psychology tends to be one of degree of disruption. Normal psychology is the study of human behavior, with a focus on “normal” or average, socially-acceptable traits and behaviors. Abnormal psychology, by contrast, is the study of unusual human behavior, and includes the study of mental disorders. The distinction between normal and abnormal psychology can be very stark or quite subtle; it is often easy for an unconventional form of behavior to be considered abnormal, when it may simply be simply a different approach. One way to help distinguish between them is to determine the effect behavioral patterns have on the well-being of the individual in question.

Abnormal psychology refers to situations where a person's psychological response to an situation does more harm than good.
Abnormal psychology refers to situations where a person's psychological response to an situation does more harm than good.

The study of normal psychology involves the examination of general psychological and behavioral responses of a population. For instance, the study of child psychology focuses on how children tend to develop mental and behavioral characteristics as they age. Normal psychology creates a frame of reference from which inferences about typical behavior and thought patterns can be drawn. For instance, if ten children experience the death of a beloved grandparent, and eight experience sadness and anger upon learning about the death, the conclusion might be that sadness and anger are normal psychological responses to the situation.

Someone who constantly abuses others may be considered to be displaying abnormal behavior.
Someone who constantly abuses others may be considered to be displaying abnormal behavior.

When discussing the other two children in the example above, the distinction between normal and abnormal psychology comes into play. If one child goes into a period of deep denial following the death of a beloved grandparent, the automatic assumption might be that the child is having an abnormal response. Some psychologists might argue, however, depending on the length and extent of the denial period, that the child is simply having an unconventional response that still fits within the spectrum of normal behavior.

Normal psychology is the study of human behavior that is considered to be "normal" or average.
Normal psychology is the study of human behavior that is considered to be "normal" or average.

Responses that fall at or beyond the far ends of normal psychology may be deemed abnormal. In general, abnormal psychology, which is also called psychopathology, focuses on responses that cause a significant amount of damage or distress in a person's life. If the remaining child in the example started exhibiting extremely self-destructive behavior, or underwent a complete and lasting personality change as a result of the death, his or her response might be considered under the terms of abnormal psychology. Many experts stress that an abnormal psychological response does not indicate that the person is bad, wrong, or crazy, but may suggest that his or her psychological response is doing more harm than good.

Some children may experience an abnormal response over the death of a beloved grandparent.
Some children may experience an abnormal response over the death of a beloved grandparent.

The study of mental diseases and disorders also distinguishes normal and abnormal psychology. While normal psychology can teach people how to recognize and cope with average responses, abnormal psychological care often focuses on the treatment of behavioral, mood, and developmental disorders. Since these disorders are technically “abnormal,” many people will not have the innate ability to manage or control the situation, and may need psychological treatment or even drug therapy to help manage the conditions.

Abnormal psychology is often used to explain criminal behavior.
Abnormal psychology is often used to explain criminal behavior.
Soldiers suffering from PTSD may display abnormal behavior.
Soldiers suffering from PTSD may display abnormal behavior.

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Discussion Comments


I had recently read quite a bit about telepathy, and I have never thought such a thing could be possible. I have experienced intuition once that kept me out of a dangerous situation. When I told others, they said it was God.

I am extremely skeptical about most things, but at the same time, highly curious. I think that things like UFOs and at least intuition are possible. I even tried out some instructions on sending a telepathic message. I followed the instructions and sent a message for a friend to text, and the other to my daughter simply telling her what I planned on making for supper. The friend never texted, but when my daughter came home I asked her if she could guess what I was going to make. She was not concerned because she had already eaten, so I explained my experiment, and asked her to try to guess. It was chicken spinach alfredo. She guessed spaghetti, with alfredo and chicken. I told her there was one more thing and she felt like it was lettuce. It was not spinach, but it was not far off. This experiment increased my interest of the subject.

I read more, and ran into an article on wikipedia that basically told me I am crazy. The psychological definition that described a hell of a lot about me was schizoid personality disorder. The only difference to me was that I want to believe, but am skeptical. I am diagnosed with ADHD. I have two friends outside of my family, people have often acted or stated that I am not all there, and in general I feel extremely shy and different. I cannot understand why normal people are not curious or how they believe in things with faith, and their lack of empathy to their fellow man. That makes me a narcisist, right?

Now, I think that I am better than others, but I convince myself that maybe they know they are full of crap, but cannot talk about their true feelings in order to conform with certain ways of thinking. I get frustrated that the things that fascinate me, seem to absolutely not have a shred of worth in terms of a job or financial security. I thought that I might be able to use telepathy to help in marketing. I feel that if it is real and not sheer coincidence, that it only works with people you are close to.

I am also weird because when I hate my life, job, situation I choose to change. Most people just accept that they are just who they are and where they are. I question my behavior and change. I always considered myself liberal, but now am independent. I hated my job, so I quit and started a business.

I considered myself an agnostic atheist, but now I think that spirituality may not be so far fetched. I felt love for my ex husband, but realized it was not real. I was scared to drive, but faced my fears, etc. The only thing I have yet to figure out that eats at me is my desire to feel accepted by others. I want to not be weird. I wonder if I should just pretend to conform in order to be accepted, but the idea makes me feel sick.

I act pretty normal for the most part. I have found that acting stuck up, and not making eye contact gives me a way to cope when I feel socially anxious. So according to what I have read, I have Asperger's, ADHD, social anxiety disorder, narcissism, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, schizoid personality type, and I have some psychopathic tendencies. Great. What I have learned overall though, is that learning is bad for you when you dig too deep. There is too much information, and if a person tries to evolve within a lifetime they will be very lonely. People hate difference and change. Einstein, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Nikola Tesla, JFK, Thomas Edison, and so many more were both so loved and so hated and weird. If they had gone to a modern psychiatrist they would have been put on antipsychotic meds to erase their fantasy like thoughts.

One more thing I learned, is that I want love from others, but normal people are depressingly uninteresting as far as I can tell. Pessimistic people are frustrated and optimistic people are delusional. Somehow I must find that middle ground between the two. "I'd like to change the world, but I don't know what to do, so I leave it up to you." A novel by a crazy person


I think both normal and abnormal psychology tries to figure out why people feel the way they do and do the things they do. The only difference is that one looks at normal behavior and the other at abnormal behavior.


@ddljohn-- I don't agree with you because normal does not mean perfect. It simply means typical and conforming to some norm. The norm is how most of the society behaves.

So psychologists are not trying to categorize people as perfect or imperfect. They are simply trying to establish behavior patterns that may be caused by some kind of personality disorder or mental illness.

You're right that everyone has a different personality. But people with different personalities also brush their teeth, go to work and socialize. If someone is unable to do these things for example, there might be another issue and this is where the study of abnormal psychology comes in.


I often feel flustered when thinking about "abnormal" psychology because I personally don't think that anything is abnormal.

We determine what is abnormal by comparing someone's behavior to another's. This would work well if we knew what normal is. But no one is absolutely perfect and just because someone thinks and behaves differently doesn't mean that there is something wrong with them. It just means that they are different.

If we were to look at individuals in society, I'm sure that we could categorize every single person into one of the personality disorders known in psychology. So this whole categorization of normal and abnormal seems to be a way to make psychologist's job easier.

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