Historical Perspectives of Abnormal Psychology Field

Subject: Psychology
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Although abnormal psychology as a scientific field has existed for about 100 years, explanations on abnormal behavior date back to pre-biblical history (Damour & Hansell. 2008). Abnormal psychology relates to the understanding of the nature, the causes as well as the treatments on disorders associated with the mind. Indeed, problems and topics of abnormal psychology are to be found on the day to day activities of an individual. Initially, mental disorder was rationalized through the spiritual approach based on the belief that the corporeal and observable world would be affected by the metaphysical and spiritual world. In the real-world demonstration of the system of belief on psychopathology subject was portrayed through the boring of holes in a person’s body in order to expel the evil spirit out of a person. The treatment of mental illness by boring holes in human body was particularly done in Bolivia and Peru at around 3000 B.C. Similarly, the practice was found in Pre-Hispanic Incan and Aztec civilizations (Shieff et al, 1997).

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Hippocrates became the first person to propose a detailed biological understanding of abnormal behavior in 460 B.C. Hippocrates argued that mental disorder was as a result of an existing imbalance among four major fluids namely blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. The four fluids were named humors. In spite of the flaws associated with the explanation given by Hippocrates, a major milestone in scientific understanding of mental illness had been made. The primitive explanations offered by Hippocrates formed the foundation for the full study and understanding of mental illness. In fact, Hippocrates’ classification of abnormal behavior based on humors has some applications in the modern day diagnostic categories. An example is the description of melancholia which is similar to today’s explanation of depression. The middle ages saw abnormal behavior being classified into two major groups based on their causes namely natural causes and demonic possession. Challenges exist in the definition and explanation of normal and abnormal behavior. For instance, researchers admit that using the term mental disorder brings about problems due to the difficulties associated with clearly defining physical and mental disorders. Psychologists have found out that many symptoms of physical disorders are also found in mental disorders. The same is true for mental disorders whereby many symptoms of mental disorder are also found in physical disorders.

Abnormal psychology has developed from the primitive association with demonic powers to the modern conceptualization as a scientific concept. Ancient Greeks are credited for having developed the first diagnosis and prescription of hysteria treatment which is presently known as conversion disorder. Hysteria is characterized by wide ranging symptoms such as confusion, paralysis, several pains as well as ailments and sensation loss. As the prevalence of hysteria was mainly pronounced in females, Greeks developed a hypothesis that there was a movement of the uterus around the body which led to fluids blockage. Later in 1876, Sigmund Freud proposed a theory accounting for psychological components of hysteria known as systematic theory of psychodynamics (Damour & Hansell, 2008). The stage for scientific classification and definition of psychological dysfunction was set rolling with the setting up of the first psychology laboratory in Leipzip, Germany in 1879 by Wilhelm Wundt. Later in 1892, Stanley Hall set up the American Psychological Association (APA) which subsequently released the first mental disorders diagnostic manual in 1952. Through the diagnostic manual for mental disorder (DSM-I), a catalogue of diagnostic classifications of mental illnesses was developed greatly helping in the criteria setting for mental illnesses. The University of Pennsylvania also set up the first psychology clinic in 1892. Thus there was a sudden upsurge of abnormal psychology into a scientific discourse.

Numerous models are associated with psychology. The psychosocial model was first advocated by Erik Erikson. According to Erikson, there are eight tasks that are crucial in the establishment of healthy of dysfunctional development (Studer, 2006). They include trust, independence, enterprise, industry, individuality, intimacy, productivity and integrity. Thus a person progresses from one stage to the other. Failure to undertake a stage successfully results to mental disorder. Biological/medical model is associated with the biochemical brain functioning as well as the occurrences in the body in relation to psychology. Various body occurrences include disease, physical injury, hormonal imbalance, neurochemical disturbances as well as genetic abnormalities. Thus the model concentrates on aspects of human psychology that are physical. The explanations offered are based on corporeal world. Finally, the sociocultural model attempts to explain the extent to which cultural and social contexts are associated with abnormal behavior (Damour & Hansell, 2008). For instance, poverty, unemployment and discrimination have extensive influence in promoting criminal behavior. Similarly, it has been claimed that the forces of societal conformity lead to mental disorder idea conception. Furthermore, the model claims that learning is steered by social and cultural stresses, pressures and ideals.

Thus abnormal psychology is based on ancient spiritual explanations as well as Hippocrates’ misguided biological perspectives. Sigmund Freud’s proposition of a theory to explain psychopathology based mental illness on conscious and unconscious forces. The field of scientific abnormal psychology was as a result of the establishment of first psychology laboratory and later clinic, the emergence of APA as well as the publication of DSM manual. Psychosocial model associates mental illness with failure to solve any given stage. The biological/medical model relates physical body happenings to mental illness while sociocultural model associates social and cultural contexts to mental illness.


Damour, L. & Hansell, J. (2008). Abnormal psychology. History of psychology: Contemporary foundations. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Shieff, C., Smith, G. T. & Wadley, J. P. (1997). Self-trephination of the skull with an electric power drill. British Journal of Neurosurgery, 11(2), 156-158.

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Studer, J. R. (2006). Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages applied to supervision. Guidance & Counseling, 21(3), 168-173.