Medical Model of Abnormal Behavior
The medical model of abnormal behavior developed in the
latter half of the nineteenth century and views abnormal behavior as a
disease. As you are aware, diseases have causes such as germs, viruses,
or destructive organisms that frequently produce disease symptoms.
For instance, a virus is the cause of a cold and a cough is a symptom resulting
from that cause. Physicans were well aware that treating a symptom
could eliminate a symptom, like a cough, but that this would do little
to destroy the disease. Furthermore, treating the symptom often produced
undesirable side effects.
Freud and others adopted this model in an effort to explain
abnormal behaviors. The behaviors themselves, like seeing hallicucinations
or phobic responses, were considered symptoms. More difficult was
identifying the underlying cause. Freud postulated that these "mental
illnesses" were often the result of hidden psychic conflicts. Kraft-Ebing's
discovery in 1897 that a spirochete caused many of the behaviors associated
with the final stage of syphilis produced an optimism that the medical
model would be a useful conceptual tool for understanding abnormal behavior.
The application of the medical model to abnormal behavior
had a number of positive and negative aspects. A few of these are
summarized below with a special emphasis given to Freud's theory and therapeutic
I. Positive Aspects
II. Negative Aspects
Making "mental illness" just like "any other illness"
meant that people with abnormal behaviors were treated with kindness
as if they were a sick person. Educated people came to believe that
persons exhibiting abnormal behaviors were sick and not possessed by demons.
Since cures and treatments were found for other illnesses,
there was a belief that mental illness was also curable and treatable.
Freud provided very good descriptions of neurotic behavior;
his explanations are very questionable.
Freud emphasized the importance of the social environmental
causes in causing abnormal behavior. Unfortunately, he stressed the
social environment of children and neglected the importance of the adult
Many Freudian concepts such as libido, ego strength, or an
underlying conflict, are difficult to scientifically test. The problem
is that many of these concepts are difficult or impossible to measure.
We cannot measure libido, we do not know objectively how much ego strength
a person has, nor can we observe the presence or absence of an underlying
Freudian theory did make a clear-cut prediction that was
open to scientific investigation and to experimental testing; but this
hypothesis of symptom substitution was not validated. The Freudians would
say that since abnormal behavior is only a symptom of an underlying cause,
if only the abnormal behavior is removed without considering an underlying
cause (which is what behavior modification does since it only deals with
behavior), then the underlying cause will manifest itself in a new symptom.
This is the concept called "symptom substitution". Evidence (Cahoon, 1968;
Lazarus, 1963; Yates, 1958) has shown that symptom substitution usually
does not occur; in fact, when behavior modifiers improve abnormal behavior,
the personís overall life tends to improve, rather than new symptoms appearing.
Labeling a person as "mentally ill" is a stigma. Research
indicates that people who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses are
often not given an fair chance.
Labeling people as "ill" implies a passivity and that they
must be cured by others and have no active involvement in changing their
Psychoanalysis is a costly and usually time consuming
treatment, requiring a highly trained specialist. Even if psychoanalysis
were always successful, it would still have little impact when one considers
the number of persons that would benefit from therapy.