Find Your Degree is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

What Is Abnormal Psychology?

The study of behavior, generally known as psychology, began to take shape as a formal discipline in the 1870s. Because its scope is so broad, psychology is naturally given to subdivisions in order to make its study more organized. Some professionals choose to examine behavior that exceeds the parameters of social acceptance or moral convention. These practitioners focus on what is popularly known as abnormal psychology, that subfield dedicated to learning about and treating disorders in mind, mood and behavior.

Methods of Research

Investigators into abnormal psychology go about their task from several different angles. Many, for example, are concerned with psychopathology. Much like medical pathologists, these psychologists seek to identify the causes, development and symptoms of behavioral derangements. Accomplishing this task can call for client interviews; experimental testing and measurement of population cross-sections; applying diagnostic criteria; and researching the scientific literature. When mental health experts can discover the origins and growth of a particular disorder, they are better positioned to treat those who suffer from it. This treatment may involve medication, behavioral modification, therapy or a combination of the three.

Disorders of the Mind

Practitioners in abnormal psychology deal with an array of dysfunctions from minor to major. One example of the latter is schizophrenia. Schizophrenic sufferers often have difficulty discerning reality from unreality. Rational thought and appropriate emotional responses are also challenges for many schizophrenics. As the disease progresses, they are subject to hallucinations, delusions, severe stress in social situations and emotional numbness. With such clients, psychologists—in tandem with psychiatrists—will adopt treatments that include medication, support groups and psychotherapy to assist the client in living optimally while managing this incurable disease. Other mind abnormalities include autism, dementia, cognitive disabilities and mental retardation.

Disorders of Mood

Mood abnormalities embrace such problems as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and irrational phobias. Isolated episodes of any of these issues may not indicate a serious condition. Ongoing manifestations, however, can seriously impede a person’s quality of life. Depression, for instance, produces chronic feelings of sadness and indifference that affect the ability to accomplish daily tasks. It can also lead to physical breakdown or even suicide. Psychologists work with depressed clients by evaluating the degree to which they suffer; engaging them in therapeutic discussion to give context and understanding of their feelings; and arranging for medication if the depression can be lessened by chemical means.

Disorders of Behavior

Certain psychological problems are known by their outward manifestations. These include eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) and substance addiction. OCD obsessions often make no sense to healthy individuals: repeated hand-washing, hair-pulling, checking to make sure a door is locked or re-arranging furniture. In and of themselves, these behaviors do not warrant concern. The repetitive and all-consuming nature of the activity is what evidences pathology. Psychologists can help evaluate the intensity of OCD by interviewing the client. They can also prescribe lifestyle modifications and ongoing psychotherapy to manage the condition.

Categories of abnormal conditions can be misleading. Cognition can affect mood and behavior, for example. Abnormal psychology studies the full range of causes, symptoms, risks and treatments in order to improve the lives of the afflicted.