Dysfunction psychology definition

Making a Diagnosis (The 3 D’s) – Culture and Psychology

While the concept of mental or psychological disorders is difficult to define, and no definition will ever be perfect, it is recognized as an extremely important concept and therefore psychological disorders (aka mental disorders) have been defined as a psychological dysfunction which causes distress or impaired functioning and deviates from typical or expected behavior according to societal or cultural standards. This definition includes three components (3 Ds)

  • Dysfunction
  • Distress
  • Deviance

Dysfunction includes disturbances in a person’s thinking, emotional regulation, or behavior that reflects significant dysfunction in psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. In other words, dysfunction refers to a breakdown in cognition, emotion, and/or behavior. For instance, an individual experiencing the delusion that he is an omnipotent deity has a breakdown in cognition because his thought processes are not consistent with reality. An individual who is unable to experience pleasure has a breakdown in emotion. Finally, an individual who is unable to leave her home and attend work due to fear of having a panic attack is exhibiting a breakdown in behavior.

Distress can take the form of psychological or physical pain, or both at the same time. Simply put, distress refers to suffering. Alone though, distress is not sufficient enough to describe behavior as abnormal. Think about it – the loss of a loved one causes even the most “normally” functioning individual pain and suffering. An athlete who experiences a career ending injury would display distress as well. Suffering is part of life and cannot be avoided. Impairment refers to when the person experiences a disabling condition that limits the ability to engage in activities of daily living (e.g., can no longer maintain minimum standards of hygiene, pay bills) or participate in social events (e.g., attending social events), work or school. Impairment can also interfere with the ability to perform important life roles (e.g., student, caregiver or parent).

A closer examination of the word abnormal shows that it indicates a move away from what is normal, typical, or average. Deviance refers to behavior that violates social norms or cultural expectations because culture determines what is normal. When a person is said to be deviant when he or she fails to follow the stated and unstated rules of society, called social norms. As you might expect there is a lot of cultural variation in acceptable behavior.

Earlier we learned about cultural relativism and what is considered normal by a culture can change over time due to shifts in accepted values and expectations. For instance, just a few decades ago homosexuality was considered taboo in the United States and it was included as a mental disorder in the first edition of the DSM; but today, it is generally accepted. Likewise, public displays of affection do not cause a second look by most people unlike the past when these outward expressions of love were restricted to the privacy of one’s own house or bedroom. In the United States, crying is generally seen as a weakness for males but if the behavior occurs in the context of a tragedy then it is appropriate and understandable. Finally, consider that statistically deviant behavior is not necessarily negative. Cognitive genius is an example of behavior that is not the norm. Abnormality alone is not an indication of a disorder or problem.

Though not part of the DSM -5 conceptualization of what abnormal behavior is, many clinicians add a fourth D – dangerousness to this list. Dangerousness refers to when behavior represents a threat to the safety of the person or the safety of others. Individuals expressing suicidal intent, those experiencing acute paranoid ideation combined with aggressive impulses (e.g., wanting to harm people who are perceived as being out to get them), and many individuals with antisocial personality disorder may be considered dangerous. Mental health professionals (and many other professionals including researchers) have a duty to report to law enforcement when an individual expresses an intent to harm themselves or others. Individuals with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are typically no more a threat to others than individuals without these disorders. It is very important to remember that having a mental disorder does not automatically mean that a person is dangerous and most dangerous individuals are not mentally ill.

What Are Mental Disorders? | Abnormal Psychology

Learning Objectives

  • Describe how psychological disorders are defined as well as the inherent difficulties in doing so

A mental disorder is a condition characterized by thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that create dysfunction. Dysfunction means a disruption of a person’s ability to live their life productively or in a way that impairs their relationships, ability to think clearly, communicate with others, hold a job, or deal with stressful events.  Psychopathology is the study of psychological disorders, including their symptoms, etiology (i.e., their causes), and treatment. The term psychopathology can also refer to the manifestation of a psychological disorder.

Although consensus can be difficult, it is important for mental health professionals to agree on what kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are truly abnormal in the sense that they genuinely indicate the presence of psychopathology. The person who washes his hands 40 times per day and the person who claims to hear the voices of demons exhibit behaviors and inner experiences that most persons would regard as abnormal. Consider the nervousness a person may feel when talking to an attractive love interest or the loneliness and longing for home a freshman may experience during their first semester of college—these feelings may not be regularly present, but they fall in the range of normal reaction. If these feelings persist, however, they may turn into feelings of anxiety or depression. One way to think about mental disorder symptoms is that they are more persistent and extreme variations of normal experiences. So, what kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors represent a true psychological disorder? Psychologists work to distinguish psychological disorders from inner experiences and behaviors that are merely situational or unconventional.

Definition of a Psychological Disorder

Perhaps the simplest approach to conceptualizing psychological disorders is to label behaviors, thoughts, and inner experiences that are atypical, distressful, dysfunctional, and sometimes even dangerous as signs of a disorder. For example, if you ask a classmate for a date and you are rejected, you probably would feel a little dejected. Such feelings would be normal. If you felt extremely depressed—so much so that you lost interest in activities, had difficulty eating or sleeping, felt utterly worthless, and contemplated suicide—your feelings would be atypical, would deviate from the norm, and could signify the presence of a psychological disorder because they are more intense and persistent than normal feelings of rejection or disappointment. Just because something is atypical, however, does not necessarily mean it is disordered.

For example, only about 4% of people in the United States have red hair, so red hair is considered an atypical characteristic (Figure 1), but it is not considered disordered; it’s just unusual. And it is less unusual in Scotland, where approximately 13% of the population has red hair (“DNA Project Aims,” 2012). As you will learn, some disorders, although not exactly typical, are far from atypical, and the rates in which they appear in the population are surprisingly high.

Figure 1. Red hair is considered unusual, but not abnormal. (a) Isla Fischer, (b) Prince Harry, and (c) Marcia Cross are three natural redheads. (credit a: modification of work by Richard Goldschmidt; credit b: modification of work by Glyn Lowe; credit c: modification of work by Kirk Weaver)

If we can agree that merely being atypical is an insufficient criterion for having a psychological disorder, is it reasonable to consider behavior or inner experiences that differ from widely expected cultural values or expectations as disordered? Using this criterion, a woman who walks around a subway platform wearing a heavy winter coat in July while screaming obscenities at strangers may be considered as exhibiting symptoms of a psychological disorder. Her actions and clothes violate socially accepted rules governing appropriate dress and behavior—these characteristics are atypical.

Cultural Expectations

Violating cultural expectations is not, in and of itself, a satisfactory means of identifying the presence of a psychological disorder. Since behavior varies from one culture to another, what may be expected and considered appropriate in one culture may not be viewed as such in other cultures. Culture can be defined as socially shared beliefs, values, norms, expectations, and practices within a group, community, or society at large.[1] For example, returning a stranger’s smile is expected in the United States because a pervasive social norm dictates that we reciprocate friendly gestures. A person who refuses to acknowledge such gestures might be considered socially awkward—perhaps even disordered—for violating this expectation. However, such expectations are not universally shared. Cultural expectations in Japan involve showing reserve, restraint, and a concern for maintaining privacy around strangers. Japanese people are generally unresponsive to smiles from strangers (Patterson et al., 2007). Eye contact provides another example. In the United States and Europe, eye contact with others typically signifies honesty and attention. However, most Latin American, Asian, and African cultures interpret direct eye contact as rude, confrontational, and aggressive (Pazain, 2010). Thus, someone who makes eye contact with you could be considered appropriate and respectful or brazen and offensive, depending on your culture (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Eye contact is one of many social gestures that vary from culture to culture. (credit: Joi Ito)

Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not physically present) in Western societies are a violation of cultural expectations, and a person who reports such inner experiences is readily labeled as psychologically disordered. In other cultures, visions that, for example, pertain to future events may be regarded as normal experiences that are positively valued (Bourguignon, 1970). Finally, it is important to recognize that cultural norms change over time: what might be considered typical in a society at one time may no longer be viewed this way later, similar to how fashion trends from one era may elicit quizzical looks decades later—imagine how legwarmers or the big hair of the 1980s would go over on your campus today.

American Psychiatric Association (APA) Definition

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA) (2013), a psychological disorder is a condition that is said to consist of the following:

  • There are significant disturbances in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. A person must experience inner states (e.g., thoughts and/or feelings) and exhibit behaviors that are clearly disturbed—that is, unusual, but in a negative, self-defeating way. Often, such disturbances are troubling to those around the individual who experiences them. For example, an individual who is uncontrollably preoccupied by thoughts of germs spends hours each day bathing, has inner experiences, and displays behaviors that most would consider atypical and negative (disturbed) and that would likely be troubling to family members.
  • The disturbances reflect some kind of biological, psychological, or developmental dysfunction. Disturbed patterns of inner experiences and behaviors should reflect some flaw (dysfunction) in the internal biological, psychological, and developmental mechanisms that lead to normal, healthy psychological functioning. For example, the hallucinations observed in schizophrenia could be a sign of brain abnormalities.
  • The disturbances lead to significant distress or disability in one’s life. A person’s inner experiences and behaviors are considered to reflect a psychological disorder if they cause the person considerable distress, or greatly impair his ability to function as a normal individual (often referred to as functional impairment, or occupational and social impairment). As an illustration, a person’s fear of social situations might be so distressing that it causes the person to avoid all social situations (e.g., preventing that person from being able to attend class or apply for a job).
  • The disturbances do not reflect expected or culturally approved responses to certain events. Disturbances in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors must be socially unacceptable responses to certain events that often happen in life. For example, it is perfectly natural (and expected) that a person would experience great sadness and might wish to be left alone following the death of a close family member. Because such reactions are in some ways culturally expected, the individual would not be assumed to signify a mental disorder.

One simple way to remember the criteria in defining psychological disorders are the four D’s: deviance, dysfunction, distress, and danger (and possibly even a fifth D for the duration).[2]

Try It

Some believe that there is no essential criterion or set of criteria that can definitively distinguish all cases of disorder from nondisorder (Lilienfeld & Marino, 1999). In truth, no single approach to defining a psychological disorder is adequate by itself, nor is there universal agreement on where the boundary is between disordered and not disordered. From time to time, we all experience anxiety, unwanted thoughts, and moments of sadness; our behavior at other times may not make much sense to ourselves or to others. These inner experiences and behaviors can vary in their intensity, but are only considered disordered when they are highly disturbing to us and/or others, suggest a dysfunction in normal mental functioning, and are associated with significant distress or disability in social or occupational activities.

Try It

Think It Over

  • Identify a behavior that is considered unusual or abnormal in your own culture that would be considered normal and expected in another culture.


atypical: describes behaviors, thoughts, or feelings that deviate from the norm

culture: socially shared beliefs, values, norms, expectations, and practices within a group, community, or society at large

etiology: cause or causes of a psychological disorder

dysfunction: disruption of a person’s ability to live their life productively or that impair their relationships, ability to think clearly, communicate with others, hold a job or deal with stressful events

mental disorder: a condition characterized by thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that create dysfunction

psychopathology: study of psychological disorders, including their symptoms, causes, and treatment; manifestation of a mental disorder

  1. Betancourt, H. , & López, S. R. (1993). The study of culture, ethnicity, and race in American psychology. American Psychologist, 48, 629–637. ↵
  2. Davis, T. (2009). “Conceptualizing Psychiatric Disorders Using ‘Four D’s’ of Diagnoses,” 5. ↵

Psychological erectile dysfunction: why does it happen? | Cavalcanti Institute of Andrology

A Psychological erectile dysfunction may be the explanation for many cases of impotence.

Look in this text for what it is, what causes it, and how to treat this male sexual problem.

What is psychological erectile dysfunction?

A Erectile dysfunction Characterized by a man's difficulty in achieving and maintaining an erection for full penetrative intercourse. It is considered psychological when there is no organic reason that justifies impotence. nine0007

In this case it is not due to advanced age or even other pathologies such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Some of the information requested by the urologist at the consultation may indicate that a man has psychogenic erectile dysfunction:

  • It starts suddenly it started crashing. nine0007
    • Psychological factor or related trauma

    Erectile dysfunction may be considered psychogenic if there is a psychological factor associated with sexual impotence, such as a recent relationship breakup.

    The patient was sexually healthy, attracted to a sexual partner and functioned well in all respects, but was abandoned. So you're trying to have sex with someone else and you can't. Disappointment in love causes psychological erectile dysfunction. nine0007

    • Morning erection and masturbation persist

    If the patient has psychological erectile dysfunction, morning erections and even during masturbation remain intact and strong. However, by having sex with a person, you lose sexual potency.

    • No comorbidities

    When erectile dysfunction occurs in healthy men, psychogenic problems associated with the condition are suspected.

    As a rule, certain diseases, such as diabetes or heart problems, cause erectile dysfunction, but in the absence of pathologies, psychological factors can be the cause of impotence. nine0007

    Although, yes, there are healthy men who have weak erections due to other causes, such as venous leakage.

    • Happens in young patients

    Psychological erectile dysfunction is suspected by a doctor at a young age, since in general sexual potency begins to decline from the age of 40.

    Psychological erectile dysfunction in a young man may be related to several events in his life.

    However, there are also men whose erectile dysfunction can be caused by organic causes. nine0007

    • Occupational or financial stress

    Men who experience professional or financial problems may suffer from sexual impotence, for example if they have been fired, if the company is in serious difficulty or has gone bankrupt, etc.

    Anxiety caused by these situations , can hit the sexual part of a man.

    • Power fluctuates greatly

    When a man's potency is found to fluctuate greatly, psychogenic erectile dysfunction is suspected. nine0007

    For example, he was on vacation, relaxed and without obligation, and the sex was going well. Then he returns to normal life, work, worries, problems and begins to fail, showing an incomplete erection.

    • Strength varies from partnership to partnership

    If a man is in an ongoing relationship and performs well, but when he has extramarital affairs he does not perform satisfactorily, he may have performance anxiety.

    In fact, performance anxiety is what causes many men to fail in sex on the first date, even without any organic problems with a good erection.

    The opposite can also happen: a man who has a permanent partnership and he no longer has good results with this person, but in a casual relationship he works very well. In this case, erectile dysfunction is associated with a loss of attraction to a regular partner for many reasons, such as wear and tear of the relationship, lack of sympathy for the person, the presence of serious problems in the relationship, such as quarrels and incompatibilities. nine0007

    • Partner comments harm performance

    When a partner makes comments that cause some insecurity in masculinity, a man may develop psychological erectile dysfunction.

    Examples of partnership may indicate unsatisfactory size of the man's penis, poor erection, or comparison with other people.

    In general, after a comment of this nature, performance can definitely suffer. nine0007

    What factors are not associated with psychological problems?

    Some organic causes may cause loss of potency. In general, when the cause is organic, the loss of erection gradually worsens.

    In this case, erectile dysfunction is not psychological at all. There are several conditions, situations and pathologies that indicate that they cause weak erections:

    • There are no spontaneous morning erections;
    • Comorbidities: diabetes mellitus, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease; nine0020
    • The patient uses many drugs for other purposes, such as antidepressants and sedatives;
    • Aging that contributes to wear and tear of the tissues of the penis and can lead to erectile dysfunction;
    • Smoking;
    • Illicit drug and alcohol use;
    • Nobody has a good erection;
    • Pelvic surgery can damage the erection nerves;
    • Patients with Peyronie's disease.

    How to cure psychological erectile dysfunction? nine0011

    Psychological erectile dysfunction is treatable. First of all, you need to seek help from an andrologist who deals with issues of male sexuality.

    In general, the physician will order tests to rule out other causes and consider the best therapeutic planning that can link several approaches, including the help of a sex therapist.

    There are several therapeutic solutions that can be used to restore the quality of a man's sex life. For example, when it comes to psychological dysfunction, issues of low self-esteem, loss of confidence, and fears will be explored. nine0007

    This interdisciplinary team can think of approaches that are appropriate for each case, such as psychotherapy and medication, because there are also men who can have both types of dysfunction (psychological and organic) associated.


    Several medical studies have already proven that sex has a beneficial effect on a man's quality of life, both in terms of organic and emotional problems associated with harmony in a couple. Therefore, it is extremely important to find ways to learn how to solve psychological erectile dysfunction. nine0007

    This is due to the fact that a man's sexual difficulties can affect various aspects of his life, endangering not only sexual possibilities, but also satisfaction in other areas.

    Therefore, men should become aware of taking care of their sexual health, even as a preventive measure, so that erectile problems can be treated at an early stage.

    The earlier this search for help to investigate psychological erectile dysfunction and its symptoms, the wider the range of treatment options opens up. nine0007

    Home - Marco Tulio

    Dr. Marco Tulio Cavalcanti Urologist and andrologist. Erectile dysfunction and sexual impotence: put an end to this torment. Penile prosthesis: resuming your sex life. Peyronie's disease: correction of curvature, restoration of the size and caliber of the penis. Hormone replacement: get back to work.

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    Psychological erectile dysfunction: causes and treatment

    Currently, there are many different diseases and conditions that can lead to erectile dysfunction in men. Most often, erectile dysfunction (ED) is caused precisely by the peculiarities of the psychological state of a man. Erectile dysfunction statistics show that in 10-20% of cases, the development of erectile dysfunction is based on the psychological factor and often turns out to be a secondary reaction to the underlying physical cause. Erectile dysfunction in 80% of cases is organic in nature and occurs as a complication of various somatic diseases. Nevertheless, in most cases, it is not difficult to distinguish the psychological form of erectile dysfunction from the organic one. nine0007

    Studies confirm that most often the psychological causes of erectile dysfunction are found in young men who have relatively recently begun to have sex. In many ways, erectile dysfunction at a young age is associated with the psychological trauma of childhood and adolescence, when parents often inspired the child that sexual relations are shameful. In this case, the first sexual intercourse of a man deserves special attention, in which often the excitement is so great that by the time the intimacy begins, the excitement and lack of experience lead to the fact that the erection disappears. But for many young people, failure during the first sexual intercourse, especially if the behavior of the partner was not entirely correct, becomes a big psychological blow and can subsequently cause great difficulties and problems in this area of ​​life. But relationships with a partner can also play a positive role: emotional support from her side can serve as a method of treating the psychological form of erectile dysfunction. However, if an adult man who has sufficient experience of sexual relations, as a rule, is able to cope with such erectile dysfunction himself, then at a young age, specialist advice is required. nine0007

    Erectile dysfunction often manifests itself as a result of psychogenic disorders. One of the most common forms is the failure expectation syndrome. Random sexual failure - a decrease or disappearance of an erection - leads to doubts about one's own male power. Fear increases in anticipation of sexual intercourse, which leads to a complete loss of erection. Thus, the principle of self-hypnosis works here: the stronger such fears, the greater the likelihood of their implementation. Over time, there are real problems with achieving and maintaining an erection, which results in psychogenic impotence. Subsequently, this can provoke a loss of interest in sexual intercourse as such. Numerous attempts to overcome insecurity turn sexual intercourse into something that, as a result, partners can not focus on anything other than observing and evaluating the reaction to their actions. This further suppresses the possibility of an erection and exacerbates psychogenic erectile dysfunction. nine0007

    The psychological form of erectile dysfunction also occurs in older men. They are more often characterized by selective erectile dysfunction, i.e., the impossibility of sexual intercourse with one partner with constant success with others. For example, they often complain about the lack or poor quality of an erection during intercourse with their wife, while there are no erection problems with mistresses.

    Another variant of erectile dysfunction caused by the characteristics of the psyche of a man is the so-called first meeting syndrome. In this case, problems with erection appear only at the first intimacy, and subsequently, as a rule, there are no problems. However, with an overly emotional male psyche, a situation is possible when one accidental failure during sexual intercourse causes very strong excitement during the next intimacy with a partner, which leads to erectile dysfunction this time. In the future, such cases, accumulating from time to time, lead a man to the conviction of his own inferiority. All this, as a result, can make him an absolute impotent even in his youth. In addition, a similar condition may appear after a disease that has affected erection, but the organic cause of erectile dysfunction has been eliminated, and erection problems have remained the same. nine0007

    Also, in addition to the above cases, most often in the psychological form of erectile dysfunction, the so-called phenomenon of nocturnal swelling of the penis, or morning erection, persists.

    It should be noted that all men experience problems with erection at some point. Nevertheless, most of them require psychological consultation in the treatment of erectile dysfunction, because, regardless of the cause of the problem, sexual failures have an unfavorable imprint on the general psychological state of a man. In such situations, most often the patient is recommended the drug Impaza, which affects his psychological status and thereby normalizes and enhances all manifestations of the sexual sphere.

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