Definitions of Dysfunctional Behaviour
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Rosenhan and Seligman's, Abnormal behaviour

Statistical infrequency:

This simply defines abnormal behaviour as that which is statistically rare in the population. E.g. schizophrenia is suffered by less than approximately 1% of the total population. However the validity of this definition has been questioned this is because it relies on the accuracy of statistics, in order for an individual to be diagnosed with dysfunctional behaviour they must be referred to a doctor. Evidence suggests that there are variations of seeing the doctor by gender and culture.

E.g. Benner argues that females are more likely to talk to a doctor about mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, in contrast men are socialised into learning to deal with problems themselves, and to cover up emotional distress.

In terms of culture, Rack argues that Asians are less likely to visit the doctor than other ethnic groups. This is because within Asian culture the emphasis is on the family, to help them support illness.

Both gender and culture variations suggest that statistics are not an accurate reflection of dysfunctional behaviour, in fact statistics show that men and Asians are less likely to suffer from depression, however this may simply be because they are not diagnosed.

Deviation from social norms:

Social norms are rules or behaviours established by society. We learn from a very young age what is normal behaviour in particular situations. (e.g. people don't usually laugh when you tell them someone bad news). Therefore dysfunctional behaviour could be defined as anything which deviates from what is considered as normal behaviour.

Deviation from ideal mental health:

Jahoda identified six areas related to ideal mental health, she argues that if people deviate from one or more of these areas then the individual may be at a risk of suffering from a mental disorder.

Ideal mental health you should:

  • Have a positive view of yourself.
  • Be capable of some personal growth.
  • Be independent.
  • Have an accurate view of reality.
  • Be resistant to stress.


  • This definition focuses on the positives i.e. on the mental health rather than mental illness; however the biggest problem with this is that most people will not meet the criteria of all at the time.
  • Jahoda's definition may only be applicable in Western societies more specifically individualistic cultures than in collectivist cultures.

Failure to function adequately:

If someone cannot carry out simple tasks and live a normal life (follow routines) then they are seen as having a dysfunctional behaviour.

Examples of dysfunctional behaviour:

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder, where person cannot go out because of the rituals they need to undertake before they can leave.
  • Behaviour that distresses the person experiencing it – not being able to go out of the house is distressing for agoraphobics.
  • Behaviour that makes a person observing the patient feel uncomfortable – such as when a person is talking to themselves while sitting next to you on the bus.
  • Unpredictable behaviour – dramatic mood swings or sudden impulses can be seen as dysfunctional.

However there are problems with this classification as a person who's had a traumatic experience e.g. fire then they are likely to obsessively check appliances before leaving the house. Would this be considered as dysfunctional behaviour?

Biases in diagnosis

Statistics shows that people with Afro-Caribbean heritage are up to 7 times as likely in the UK to be diagnosed with schizophrenia and yet in the Caribbean diagnosis is at very low levels. Therefore this suggests that it could be potentially biased as in the Caribbean schizophrenia might be seen as being normal buy in the UK it is seen as dysfunctional behaviour.

Social norms change over time. The DSM classification system classified homosexuality as a mental disorder until 1973. In the early 20th century in the UK some married women who became pregnant were sent to mental asylums some for the rest of their lives.

There is also a problem of not taking into account cultural issues when diagnosing dysfunctional behaviour. Cochrane et al found evidence that psychiatrists commonly assume that the behaviour of the white population are correct. Anything which deviates from this is dysfunctional, one could argue that some psychiatrists are culturally blind. In other words they do not take into consideration that other cultural norms exist.

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