Abnormal Behavior

What is normal? Definitions of normality range from a statistical abstraction to a social/cultural idea. Uncommon behavior is often regarded as abnormal -- and as a statistical construct that may be appropriate BUT is abnormal necessarily dysfunctional?

EXAMPLES of DEEP connections:

  • DEVELOPMENT: there IS a stage in human development when CONFORMITY is a high value] See notes at the Heroic Imagination Project, founded by Philip Zimbardo (now Professor Emeritus at Stanford) ] What NEED does accommodating PEER PRESSURE involve? what about STANDING OUT? Things normal at one stage of life may be abnormal in another (e.g., infant curiosity and exploration) (pregnant versus non-pregnant women's dietary predilections (dysguesia) -- maybe abnormal, but not considering how chaning hormones affect salava and taste)
  • ECOLOGY: is the niche proving for all biological needs? any stress-evoking selection pressures?]
  • EVOLUTION: e.g. ... when under stress. people can pull together (as can the individuals of Dictyostelium) ... Pinker argues that the unification of many competing groups into a cooperative super-group reduces conflict and enables otherwise impossible social projects to be undertaken (such as war or agriculture). (review of Pinker's thesis) .. Optimal configurations may be naturally selected in generations to come
  • PHYSIOLOGY: detection or perception or memory of stimuli that are (or are perceived as) challanging a high priority biological need.
        • [COGNITIVE: e.g. ... when everyone agrees, COHERENCE test of reality is highly enhanced ... and failures of CORRESPONDENCE my be more tolerable]


Behavior (as with other biological traits) is variable and can be represented on a continuum from less common to more common expressions. "Normal" means "Conforming to the standard or the common type..."

Behavior at an extreme limit of natural variation may be regarded as abnormal, but may be necessary nevertheless to the fitness of the population as part of a dynamic balance of traits in which rare ones are only rarely needed.

what is
Aristotle regarded moral virtues (such as courage) as falling at the mean between two accompanying vices.


In fact, ALL BEHAVIORAL patterns are subject to dysfunctions attributable to deficiency and dysfunctions attributable to excess.

Vice of Deficiency
Virtuous Mean
Vice of Excess
Want of Ambition
Right Ambition
Good Temper
Friendly Civility
Ironical Depreciation
Just Resentment

WE TOO QUICKLY ASSUME that deviations from "normality" are "dysfunctional." Of course for a world engineered by people with typical abilities or gifts for themselves --and guided by the ANTHROPOMORPHIC fallacy-- those with atypical abilities may have a problem (is this the mainspring of the X-Men? so easy for young people with changes in abilities and tendencies for behavior emerging too quickly to accommodate within themselves and between themselves and others). Read a recent (2014) New Scientist editorial about being "differently abled"

"A large survey of randomly selected adults, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and conducted between 2001 and 2003, found that an astonishing 46 percent met criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for having had at least one mental illness within four broad categories at some time in their lives. The categories were:
Most met criteria for more than one diagnosis. Of a subgroup affected within the previous year, a third were under treatment—up from a fifth in a similar survey ten years earlier." -- from "The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?" by Marcia Angell. NYRB June 23, 2011


WHERE is the "line" between normal and abnormal behavior? ("over the line" implies "clinically actionable" behavior, requiring remediation or mitigation by intervention of some kind) The line is often very hard to find! --
  • DEEP: Dysfunctional behavior can mean different things in different contexts: at different ages
      • DEVELOPMENTAL perspective: presence or absence of specific functional behavioral traits at different times throughout an individual's growth and by means of experience;
      • ECOLOGICAL: behavior relative to biotic or abiotic selection pressures and meeting biological needs;
      • EVOLUTIONARY perspective: Behavior can be characterized as existing in an adaptive relationship to past and/or present environments - more-or-less enabling the ability to cope with ecological "selection pressures.". Thus, all determinations of "normality" must accommodate or acknowledge context. "Abnormal" means "not normal" or "typical" but is often understand in terms of what is adaptive or contributes to "direct or indirect fitness."
      • PHYSIOLOGICAL perspective: behavior attributed to flawed or unbalanced morphology or chemistry of tissue that controls behavior (include "epigenesis"); are needs sufficiently well met to avoid acute or chronic stress?

      THE HOMEOSTATIC HALL OF MIRRORS: in determining causation, recall that streams of information including those leading to actions are in balance --even seeming competition-- with each other. Damage at any specific site can impair function or enable function depending on its close causal and consequential connections: for example -- look at the consequences of Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke -- she called it her "stroke of insight"

  • Dysfunctional behavior is often defined by SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT, and the shared experience of the group in which a possibly dysfunctional person might be embedded (see the Rosenhahn Experiment: "on being sane in insane places")
  • Behavior near the BOUNDARIES of what is generally perceived as "NORMAL" can be characterized as "abnormal" -- and the label itself can create a context of expectations that nudges behavior into the dysfunctional range. . . . "is EVERYBODY crazy?" -- What are "shadow syndromes?"

      The stress response can affect the boundaries of behavior: it can induce susceptible individuals to "switch off" the cortical centers that moderate impulsive (instinctive?) behavior; and it can facilitate creative and innovative responses.
  • "After examining the psychological histories of a few living leaders and a whole little power necropolis, Nassir Ghaemi, director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts University Medical Center, is ready to proclaim a link between madness and achievement that is usually reserved for poets, not prime ministers: 'Depression makes leaders more realistic and empathic, and mania makes them more creative and resilient.'” -- read rest of NYTBR of "Are All of Our Leaders Mad?"


MODELS are [among other things] selective representations of nature for a special purpose --for example to clarify explanations of relationships where the real world would be too complex for those of us not immersed in its details. [defined].They are powerful for representing or demonstrating some general principle. (more on MODELS) They are also related to the idea of the ideal (which may not exist in nature, only in one's mind --synonyms: exemplar, standard, prototype, archetype). Where do ideals come from ?? Could they be socially constructed through experience ?? Look in on the notes "MODELS and attractiveness" from the Art and Organism course.

See E.O. Wilson on "adaptive versus nonadaptive traits" (in Sociobiology (abridged) p. 15)

VARIABILITY IN PERSONALITY likely has a biological element: look at Howard Bloom's letter describing the work of Jerome Kagen.


  • genetic problems (mutation, chromosomal aberration);
  • disease (both products and processes of microbes or toxins);
  • injury.
  • developmental abnormalities (including prenatal);
  • trauma
  • arrested or accelerated development of one or more specific traits
EVOLUTIONARY: transmission from previous generations
  • trait may have been adaptive in ancestral environment
ECOLOGY: ABNORMAL STIMULI; predators, parasites
  • too much: overstimulation (and compensatory shutdown); supernormal stimuli.
  • too little: pathological boredom
  • real (or perceived) challenge to meeting (real or perceived) needs (see hierarchically prioritized needs)
  • perceived or anticipated challenge to meeting needs
  • efforts at attaining homeostasis that "overshoot" or evoke dysfunction; how we are tricked, how we trick ourselves: pleasure and homeostasis: psychoactive drugs


In Nature. Examples of abnormal behavior in nature are rare: atypical individuals may not survive to be observed or may live in an unexpected (or "abnormal") part of the environment. When they are observed it is commonly in association with environmental or biological disturbances such as relatively sudden changes in the ecosystem such as disaster (storm, fire, volcano), climate, or types of predators or prey. Often, abnormal behavior is noticed only because the animal is unlike what we expect, it doesn't "fit" with our preconceptions. Such animals may manifest exaggerated traits in an attempt to compensate for a too much or too little of some key element in its normal life history.

In Zoos. "Abnormality" may represent a failed attempt to compensate for a missing element in an animal's normal life history really abnormal? Causes that have been identified as inducing abnormality in zoo animals are the presence or absence of stimuli as a result of their abnormal context. For example, there may be none of the stimuli that usually elicit specific activities that the animals ordinarily devote considerable time to: foraging for prey, socializing, building burrows or nests or refuges. Sometimes these are manifest as refusal to eat or overeating, stereotyped (repetitive) motor patterns, self- mutilation, aggressiveness, depression.


a STEREOTYPY is repetitive motor pattern that provide important clues about possible latent neurobehavioral problems: They are not necessarily excessive and abnormal -- in fact, in moderation they appear anxiolytic (stress relieving) and are fairly common, They appear prominent in animals experiencing stress, underscoring the autonomic, homeostatic connection with self-regulation and this functioning as a kind of self-therapy (what is your favorite stereotypy?). It is easy, however, to see how these can become pathological when expressed excessively, creating dysfunctional syndromes in themselves, possibly by triggering positive-feedback patterns. Such dysfunctional stereotypies may represent modest through extreme self-stimulation organized at non-conscious levels. Stereotypies are superficially related to obsessive-compulsive behavior and several other well-described disorders ... read on: .
  • Stereotypy (a.k.a. "ritualized" behavior)
  • interpretation of validity & relationship to other disorders


Autism and Asperger's

Autistic and Proud" essay in New Scientist ... "Many autistic people ... have had enough of being treated as a medical problem, arguing that autism is not a disease that needs to be cured but just a normal part of human diversity. This emerging "autistic rights" movement hopes to launch an international campaign akin to Gay Pride, encouraging autistic people everywhere to embrace their "neurodiversity", and persuading wider society to accept them as they are."

are recently regarded as a "spectrum disorder" in which varying degrees of severity are recognized: From a recent essay from New York Times entitled, "Answer, but No Cure, for a Social Disorder That Isolates Many By AMY HARMON: Last July, Steven Miller, a university librarian, came across an article about a set of neurological conditions he had never heard of called autistic spectrum disorders. By the time he finished reading, his face was wet with tears.

"This is me," Mr. Miller remembers thinking in the minutes and months of eager research that followed. "To read about it and feel that I'm not the only one, that maybe it's O.K., maybe it's just a human difference, was extremely emotional. In a way it has changed everything, even though nothing has changed."

Mr. Miller, 49, who excels at his job but finds the art of small talk impossible to master, has since been given a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, an autistic disorder notable for the often vast discrepancy between the intellectual and social abilities of those who have it.

(what Proust said ... what Socrates said

"Mad Pride" It seems reasonable that people are wary at best of people unlike themselves, less predictable ... but all of us oar more or less like that at one point or another in our lives, BUT many of the conditions --accident or circumstantial-- that lead to being "stuck" in or afflicted by being behaviorally (not just metabolically or physiologically) different can be controlled or remediated. that "The challenge is to help more everyday people learn about and accept mental disorders as readily as they do someone with diabetes or M.S. It’s been a long journey, and we still have quite a ways to go."

CUTTING. Compare
the accepted practice in Togo of young girls having their midriffs scared to emphasize their attractiveness" (Steve J Ayan & Iris T Calliess's essay, "Abnormal as Norm," in Scientific American Mind" 2005, pp 12-13)
and "cutters: in America (Jeffrey Kluger's essay in TIME Magazine, May 16, 2005:48-50)


    When any behavioral pattern is represented out of proportion with other patterns with which it is usually integrated or it appears in an inappropriate context it creates disorder and if uncompensated by other processes because of their exhaustion or other limitations it may become a pathology, perhaps a mortal disease.

    IS THE MIND just a "set of structures with specific functions" and IS MENTAL ILLNESS simply "what happens when those structures fail in a particular environment, or when the structures themselves break"?? [more]

    Very frequently, however, one person's pathology is another's adaptive behavior-- the determinant is survival value, and that is strongly influenced by context. Paranoia is appropriate in warfare, not at school or at home. ("Sanity is learning to tolerate the intolerable," Fellini).


    Paranoia in Business: "And though Intel's spotless clean rooms, its brilliant engineers and its bunny-suited workers seem far removed from the Austrian hillside [on which Time's 1998 Man of the Year, Intel's Andrew Grove, found himself unexpectedly safe after a harrowing escape from Soviet troops after the failed Hungarian uprising of 1957] , few places better reflect the sense of urgency with which the firm operates. Grove has it boiled down to a mantra that is as fresh as it is chilling: 'Only the paranoid survive.' " (TIME. Dec 29,1997-Jan 5, 1998. p.57),

    Paranoia in world affairs: After comments on [Saddam's] daily routine, reporters Melinda Liu and Alan Zarembo comment, "All of this paints a picture of Saddam as crazed, scared, running for his life. But what passes for paranoia in other places makes perfect sense in his world. During his three decades at the helm of one of the world's most ruthless regimes, the Iraqi dictator has amassed enough enemies to justify such measures" (Newsweek, 2 March 1998 p.38). Later: "He's very rational . . . . He lives in a world in which it is perfectly rational to behave like he does. It is a system in which you can't trust anyone. You can only survive by mistrusting everyone, including your own family." (Kanan Makiya, author of Republic of Fear, cited in Newsweek, 2 March 1998 p.38-39).

    (Suppose a paranoiac has (or imagines they possess) unusually refined and sensitive skills at assessing the personality of those around them ("intuition"): "Saddam has survived at least 20 coup attempts by trusting nobody. . . . He has often bragged: ‘I know a person will betray me before they know it themselves’" (Newsweek, 2 March 1998 p.40).

    Dominic Murphy (CIT) and Stephen Stich (Rutgers) suggest in their Evolution and the Human Mind that prevailing views of mental illness as a biological disease in the brain may be misguided and that there may be nothing "wrong" with psychopaths . . . Are there psychopaths amongst us? more . . . A sociopath living next door? more

    CONTEXT: The relativity of pathology and further support for the importance of context in its etiology and interpretation is dealt with in the works of RD. Laing and Michael Foucault. Social tolerance of deviation from a norm is often associated with the security or stability of the culture. Clearly it is important to study abnormal behavior: disorders can be viewed as "natural experiments" --Sir Francis Bacon's "Nature vexed" (we know the inner workings of nature as we know of the character of a man: most clearly when it is stressed!)

    KEY CONCEPTS that inform ETHOLOGY and SOCIOBIOLOGY as they seek insight into the causes and consequences of DYSFUNCTIONAL behavioral patterns can be viewed from the perspective and levels of organization of "DEEP ETHOLOGY."
    Key ideas include :
    • How is abnormality, dysfunction, and pathology recognized and related?
    • Aristotle and modern conceptions - excesses, deficits, balance
    • Adaptive dysfunctions, behavioral polymorphism, spectrum disorders


    Background to understanding the stress response

    "There are many systems in the body which, because of misuse or misfortune, may have their services to the organism as a whole so altered as to be actually harmful.

    Thus vicious circles of causation become established which may lead to death... The development of pathological functions in a system is quite consistent with its usual performance of normal functions... The problem is presented of attempting to learn under what circumstances the transformation occurs.

    And so, in an examination of the bodily changes which characterize the strong emotions, we may admit the common utility of the changes as preparations for action, we may admit also that such changes may become so persistent as to be a menace instead of a benefit, and we may also be stimulated by this contrast to attempt to understand how it may arise." (W.B. Cannon)

    The EASY and HARD questions of CONSCIOUSNESS

    The EASY questions of CONSCIOUSNESS
    chains of causes and consequences described


    The HARD questions of CONSCIOUSNESS
    involve the "Explanatory Gap"



    Normality and Abnormality, Dysfunction and Maladaptation

    Abnormality, Disorder, Pathology

    The reductionist approach to the identification of the causes of pathology have learned of subcellular, genetic, and biochemical processes that are sites of disorder. Frequently they are normal processes that have been altered as a result of inadequate, excessive, or misdirected stimuli.

    the body defends itself economically: "Instead of depending on a large number of separate mechanisms, each one of which is exclusively reserved for its own particular type of emergency, the body improvises responses to the threat of injury by assembling new combinations of pre-existing functions." (Miller, 1978:118).

    But sometimes. the situation with which the organism is trying to COPE is beyond its ADAPTIVE SCOPE It does the best it can with the available resources and often that attempt appears dysfunctional --as in medicine the CURE may have peculiar side effects or even be as bad or worse than the DISEASE.

    But the unique perspective of ETHOLOGY should make us sensitive to the integrative perspective: disorder is often a result of responses the organism invokes to try to compensate for a disordered development or disordered environment. This should be obvious to anyone familiar with W.B. Cannon's insight:

    The organism has evolved many mechanisms to maintain homeostasis, and the normal function of any of these can suddenly intensify or diminish in order to ameliorate the disordering influence of trauma, intrusion, toxic influences, and malfunction.


    ART: (what Proust said ... what Socrates said (new information about iconic neurotic artist: van Gogh ...)
    “The difference,” Malcolm Gladwell once wrote, “between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom.” Are the "seven deadly sins" disorders? How does our understanding affect public policy?

    In Paul Matthew's view, Shakespeare's Richard III displays the behaviour typical of a sociopath, in whom the frontal lobes typically show a distinctive shape. “Shakespeare knew nothing of these ideas, but still understood the behaviour of sociopaths. Richard III believes he is 'subtle, false and treacherous' because he appears unable to act on the basis of what is right or wrong. His actions have nothing to do with seeking revenge. 'He simply has no understanding of the emotional impact of his actions, which is typical of the sociopath,' Matthews says.” [Professor Paul Matthews is the director of Oxford University's centre for functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain; he has collaborated with Shakespeare scholar Jeffrey McQuain to produce The Bard on the Brain, published by Dana Press. His work was described by Robin McKie: “Bard proven to be an expert on the brain” – Robin McKie – Sunday March 16, 2003 – The Observer ]

    DISORDER is relative . . . it may be related to moving in harmony with Nature's Laws - [more]


    DYSLEXIA –view pagecached page … Normally dyslexia is considered a handicap: a mental deficiency that makes reading, long-division and remembering whether letters and numbers face left or right difficult. Challenging this view, learning disabilities experts Brock and Fernette Eide argue that dyslexia is an alternative way brains can be wired -- one with many advantages. Read a Q&A with the authors of the new book, The Dyslexic... more … …2011/09/dyslexia-advantage also:

    All the greatest things we know have come to us from neurotics.

    It is they and they only who have founded religions and created great works of art.
    Never will the world be conscious of how much it owes to them,
    nor above all of what they have suffered in order to bestow their gifts on it.

    --Marcel Proust


    (Comment or respond: )


      Selected References
        Cannon, W.B., Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage
        Hediger, H. 1950. Wild Animals in Captivity. Dover Publications.
        Hediger, H. 1955. The Psychology and Behaviour of Animals in Zoos and Circuses. Dover Publications.
        Hrdy, S.B. (1984) When the bough breaks. The Sciences 24(2):44-50