What Is Abnormal Behavior?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Perhaps you have heard the term abnormal behavior before and thought that it refers to any human behavior that seems strange or eccentric. This might be a reasonable assumption in everyday life, but abnormal behavior refers to something more specific in a psychological context.

The American Psychological Association defines abnormal behavior as “behavior that is atypical or statistically uncommon within a particular culture or that is maladaptive or detrimental to an individual or those around that individual.”

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), abnormal behavior may be characterized by one or more of the following four criteria: maladaptive behavior, personal distress, statistical rarity, and violation of social norms.

Maladaptive behavior

Abnormal behavior may have negative consequences

One of the first indications of abnormality may be maladaptive behavior. An individual might develop maladaptive behavior to cope with challenging emotions and circumstances. However, these behaviors can be unhelpful and cause further challenges to an individual’s well-being and relationships. Examples of maladaptive behavior might include acting out of uncontrolled anger, avoiding uncomfortable situations, or engaging in substance use or self-harm. Once individuals identify their maladaptive behavior, they may be able to adopt healthier ways of coping that will not harm themselves or others.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Personal distress

Personal distress often occurs when an individual engages in abnormal behavior due to some type of difficulty that they are experiencing. A common example of this might be obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Individuals with OCD typically experience intrusive thoughts, images, or impulses that trigger anxiety. Feelings of discomfort may lead them to engage in behaviors to neutralize the anxiety. These behaviors (called compulsions) may include re-checking things, cleaning excessively, engaging in repetitive body movements, or seeking reassurance from others. Compulsions can also be mental, such as excessive rumination. The amount of time and energy spent carrying out compulsions can significantly impact an individual’s daily life and cause distress.

Personal distress can be difficult to recognize. Some people may experience it without being aware of it. For instance, if someone lives with a mental illness, they might accurately be classified as being in distress at times, but they may not be able to understand or acknowledge it. 

Statistical rarity


Statistical rarity refers to someone who is considered atypical in some way. This can have both negative and positive repercussions. For instance, an individual who has a developmental disorder or a low IQ might be considered to demonstrate statistical rarity.

However, individuals who have extremely high IQs might also be considered statistical rarities. Someone like Albert Einstein might be considered a statistical rarity. Therefore, he might be thought of as abnormal, despite the negative connotation that sometimes accompanies this term.

Violation of social norms

Another criterion of abnormal behavior is a violation of social norms. For example, a person who removes all their clothing and runs down the street is likely to be seen as behaving in an abnormal manner. However, a three-year-old child who does the same thing might not be. In this way, a person’s age may have just as much to do with what’s considered a social norm violation as the activity itself.

What causes abnormal behavior?

Because many different behaviors could be considered abnormal and fall into one of the described categories above, there are many potential causes of abnormal behavior. Abnormal behaviors might be related to a psychological disorder, the situation a person finds themselves in, or other factors. Below are some examples.

Mental/physical health and abnormal behavior

Abnormal behavior can sometimes be the product of a mental or physical health condition. For example, let’s suppose someone enters a grocery store, takes a candy bar off a shelf, peels off the wrapper, and starts eating it. They start to walk out of the store, and one of the employees stops them and demands that they pay for it. They express surprise and seem to not understand why their behavior is objectionable.

There are several possible explanations for this behavior, which may be classified as abnormal. In this case, a doctor may determine that there is a tumor in a part of the person’s brain that has to do with impulse control. The same thing might happen in the case of a stroke. A partial recovery might occur, but a part of the brain that manages impulse control might be permanently affected.

One might also observe abnormal behavior in someone who has schizophrenia and is not taking their medication as prescribed. Thus, abnormal behavior might be related to what is happening in a person’s body or mind.

Situational behavioral abnormality

Abnormal behavior may also occur in specific circumstances. For example, in extreme circumstances, human beings have been known to engage in behaviors that they would normally consider unthinkable. For example, in some cases where individuals were stranded in the wilderness without food, they resorted to eating the flesh of those who died.

Most cultures would agree that cannibalism is abnormal behavior. If you are well-fed and content, then it’s something that you would never think of doing. In this example, it is the extreme situation that led to this occurrence.

There are plenty of other less extreme examples. The festival known as Burning Man, which takes place in the Nevada desert, attracts all kinds of free thinkers and creative individuals. It’s a place where outlandish activity is often expected and encouraged. When you go there, you might see people walking around in animal costumes or completely naked. The abnormal behavior is, once again, situational.

Can you control abnormal behavior?

The question of whether you can control abnormal behavior may be related to what’s causing it. If someone is acting out of the ordinary because of something like a brain tumor, then there may not be much that an individual can do to behave more in line with what society expects. The same may be true if a mental health condition is involved.

Therefore, some kinds of abnormal behavior might be within a person’s scope of control, but others might not be. Taking behavior control for granted can be easy if one doesn’t experience a mental health condition. Individuals who live with a mental illness may not be able to help but act in compulsory ways, and this can cause challenges in everyday life. However, these individuals can sometimes find help through therapy or medication. 

What can you do if someone you know is exhibiting abnormal behavior?

Abnormal behavior may have negative consequences

If someone you know seems to be displaying signs of abnormal behavior according to one of the four categories described above, it may lead you to feel concerned for them. If they continue to act in that way, it can adversely affect them and possibly you as well.

It may help to find a time to tactfully speak to them about the behavior and try to ascertain what it is that’s causing it. If they’re aware of the harm their actions are causing to themselves or others, they may be open to seeking treatment. They might be able to stop these behaviors independently, or therapy or medications (as prescribed by a doctor) might be an option. If they’re not able to recognize that what they are doing is harmful, then that could indicate that they are experiencing a mental health condition.

Talk to a counselor about abnormal behavior

If you have a friend or family member who is exhibiting abnormal behavior and you are not certain about what to do, it may be helpful to speak with a licensed mental health professional. 

Speaking to someone in person about a sensitive topic like abnormal behavior can be challenging, even if you’re not the one exhibiting it. If this is the case, you may feel safer talking about your concerns with an online therapist. Research shows that online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy for several mental health concerns. 

In online counseling, you can speak with a therapist from the comfort of your own home via audio or video chat. With BetterHelp, you can also contact your therapist at any time, day or night, via in-app messaging, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can.

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Not all abnormal behavior has negative consequences. A person whose behavior seems different can continue to behave that way as long as it doesn’t hurt themselves or anyone else. However, abnormal behavior can cause challenges when people can no longer control what they are doing and it begins to leak over into their daily life. 

If you’re concerned about abnormal behavior, whether your own or that of someone else, you don’t have to face it alone. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed counselor who has experience identifying and addressing abnormal behavior in a nonjudgmental way. Take the first step to getting support and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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