Abnormal psychology is a relatively new field of study. Fifty years ago it was considered a remote province of knowledge, explored only by a few specialists, and it played a distinctly minor part in man’s thinking about his own nature. Today it contributes richly to the training of those professional workers, especially psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, teachers, and ministers, whose duties bring them in frequent contact with troubled people. More than this, it occupies a respected place among general college courses, for it is capable of making a highly significant contribution to all thinking about man’s problems and man’s quest for a better way of life. Abnormal personalities are not mysteriously set apart from the normal. Their various peculiarities represent exaggerations of what is to be found in every human being. They are therefore well suited to enlarge our understanding of the whole process of personal adjustment. If we know what can go wrong in human development, we are the wiser in making it go right
When we set ourselves to examine the field of abnormal psychology we can proceed in two ways. We can look into the history of the subject and discover how it came to be what it is today This method offers distinct advantages over an immediate plunge into facts and current problems. Science generally advances in a disorderly fashion. At any given moment the greatest activity occurs at three or four isolated points, the location of which is determined by temporary urgency, by newly discovered techniques, or even by fashion. It is easy to get lost in the details and preoccupations of current research, and the best protection against doing so is to anchor our study firmly in the framework of history.
By turning up the facts in the same order in which they confronted past investigators one can better appreciate the really basic difficulties which tend to impede understanding, and one can more readily keep the whole subject in place in the larger context of human affairs. On the other hand we could begin our study in a quite different way: by making a clinical survey of the facts which constitute the subject-matter of abnormal psychology. We could examine a series of cases illustrating the kinds of things we shall be studying in more systematic form throughout the book. The clinical method has the advantage of realistic vividness and of proceeding in the right direction from fact to theory. The advantages of each method are in fact so great that in this book we shall try the experiment of using them both.
The Subject-Matter And Importance of Abnormal Psychology
At the present time the province of abnormal psychology can be roughly described as the study of disordered personal reactions to life and its circumstances. When we say disordered we have in mind people whose lives in some way go astray, so that they find themselves frustrated, unhappy, anxious, baffled in their deepest desires, misfits in their society; or, in the most serious instances, people who get so badly out of touch with surrounding life that we call them insane. When we say that the disorder lies in personal reactions we intend to limit the field more closely by excluding what may be called the external reasons for frustration and sorrow.
Accidents, bereavements, ill health, war and other disasters, unemployment and poverty, lack of opportunities, unfair social barriers, and a hundred other external circumstances may stand in the way of happy and effective living. These obstacles are tremendously important, but it is not the task of psychology to study them in their own right. They are already claimed for other fields of knowledge such as medicine, public health, and especially the various social sciences. To all such circumstances, however, the individual makes a personal reaction. Even to a disease affecting his own body each person reacts in a way that is peculiar to himself. It is at this point, where the personal reaction begins, that we cross into the province of psychology, and we reach the sub-province of abnormal psychology when we concentrate on disorders in the personal reaction.
To illustrate what has just been said let us take the example of unemployment. A man may become unemployed through no fault of his own, purely as a result of economic forces over which he has no control. This external circumstance evokes in him some kind of personal reaction. The professional task of the social scientist is to understand the economic forces which brought about the unemployment ; that of the psychologist begins with the personal reaction.
Unemployed people react to their misfortune in a variety of ways. Many of these ways it would not occur to us to call disordered or abnormal. Unhappiness and discouragement, indignation and bitterness, seem well justified by the circumstances. Attempts to understand the situation and to change it by organized action seem well adapted to the problem as it stands. Certain people, however, behave in more extreme and peculiar ways. One man may take the blame entirely upon himself, declaring that his misfortune is a well-deserved punishment for his own sin and worthlessness. Another may believe that his former employers formed a conspiracy to throw him out of work and are even now trying to poison his food and take his life.
A third may become extremely shy, hiding from his neighbors even when they too are unemployed, convinced that everyone Holds him in contempt because he is no longer able to support his’ family. Still another may decide to shoot the President : this indeed is no fanciful example, for in 1932 a hungry unemployed man fired at the President-elect at a public gathering and killed another public official who was standing near by. These people, we say, are taking life in a very peculiar fashion. Their personal reactions are so little warranted by external circumstance, or so poorly designed to achieve desired results, that we cannot avoid considering them disordered. Factors within themselves are contributing disproportionately to their behavior. Abnormal psychology is the study of these disordered and disproportionate personal reactions.
Many expressions are in use to indicate.all or part of the subject-matter contained within this general idea: behavior disorders, mental disorders, neuropsychiatric disabilities, psychological disorders, emotional disorders, maladjustments, nervous disorders, disorders of personality. Most of these terms have overlapping meanings; such value as they may possess will become apparent as we proceed.