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One classic debate in psychology is whether mental illness is caused by nature or nurture.

In this lesson, we’ll look at both sides and see how the diathesis-stress model tries to explain why both nature and nurture are important.

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Abnormality

Christie is depressed. She can’t tell you why, but she feels blue a lot, and she sometimes has trouble getting out of bed for days at a time. She’s not interested in hanging out with her friends or doing any of the things that would normally interest her.What’s going on? Why is Christie this way? Abnormal psychology looks at patients like Christie and tries to figure out why people struggle with mental illness.

There are many theories as to why people like Christie suffer from psychological disorders. Whether it’s depression or schizophrenia or obsessive compulsive disorder, there are many opinions as to what causes mental health issues.Some psychologists believe that psychological problems are a result of unresolved childhood issues. For example, they might say that Christie’s depression can be traced back to problems in her childhood. On the other hand, some psychologists believe that mental illness can be explained by faulty thought patterns.To them, Christie can get rid of her depression by changing the way she thinks.

Still others believe that psychological problems are caused by biological, or brain, anomalies. They might say that Christie’s depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in her brain. Which of these people is right? Is it possible that they all might be right? Let’s take a closer look at how one model, the diathesis-stress model, tries to reconcile two different views on abnormality.

Nature vs. Nurture

Ben is the star basketball player at his college. For as long as anyone can remember, he’s been better at basketball than anyone else he knows. But, why is Ben so much better than other basketball players? Was he just born with special skills? Does he practice harder? Those questions touch upon one of the biggest psychological debates of the 20th century: are people’s gifts and problems a result of nature or nurture?People who believed in the power of nature argued that people like Ben are born with talent that made them better than others at basketball.

No amount of practice would make someone who was born without talent beat Ben on the basketball court; he was just born with more gifts. They’d point out that Ben is taller than average and that he’s always been skilled at playing basketball.Those same people would point out that Christie’s mom also suffered from depression. They’d say that there’s a genetic, or biological, cause of depression. It’s not Christie’s fault; she was born with the depressed gene.

On the other hand, proponents of the influence of nurture believed that the environment could explain people’s gifts or problems. They would point out that because Ben has always been a little bit taller than other boys his age, he got more attention and mentoring from coaches. That led to him practicing more and getting more time to play in games, which made him more skillful.The same can be true of Christie. Maybe she’s depressed because she was raised by a depressed mother. To them, the answers are in the environment and the way that people interact with the world around them. But, as the 20th century drew to a close, psychologists began to recognize that nature and nurture interact in interesting ways.

For example, maybe Ben was a little taller than other babies when he was just learning to walk. Because he was taller, his parents said, ‘He’d be a great basketball player.’ They got him a toddler basketball hoop, and Ben started playing around on it around the time that he started walking.All that basketball practice changed the way his brain worked. He developed the part of his brain in charge of coordination and reflexes.

This made him a better basketball player, which led to more opportunities to practice, which in turn made him even better.In this example, Ben’s nature (his height) influenced his environment in that his parents encouraged him to play basketball very early. But, that nurturing of basketball also changed his nature (his brain), which in turn influenced his environment even more.

It became a cycle of nature and nurture that led to Ben becoming a great player.

Diathesis-Stress Model

As psychologists realized how nature and nurture interacted with each other, a new idea of how to study abnormal psychology began to emerge. The diathesis-stress model of abnormality says that people have a biological or genetic predisposition to mental illness, but their environment determines whether or not they will actually become mentally ill.Let’s go back to Christie. Her mom was depressed, and many studies have shown that there is a biological and genetic predisposition to depression. So, maybe Christie inherited a gene that means that she might be more likely to be depressed than other people.

But, that’s not the end of the story. Perhaps Christie never becomes depressed, and she lives a very happy life. What gives?According to the diathesis-stress model, Christie’s predisposition toward depression is her ‘diathesis.

‘ It’s like a baseline that says that Christie is ‘this close’ to being depressed naturally. Other people might have a baseline that’s further away from depression. In other words, they are less predisposed towards depression.But, then something happens in Christie’s life that causes her ‘stress.’ Maybe that’s a breakup or losing her job.

It could even be something happy, like having a kid. That stress adds onto or interacts with her natural predisposition and brings Christie closer to being depressed. With enough stress, Christie will become depressed. If that sounds complicated, just think of it like this: a combination of genetics and stress are causing Christie’s depression.

Lesson Summary

Psychologists have not always agreed on what causes abnormality.

For many years, a debate raged as to whether abnormal psychological states were caused by nature or by the environment. In recent years, however, psychologists have realized that both nature and nurture interact to create psychological problems. The diathesis-stress model of abnormality says that people start with a genetic predisposition to a mental illness, but environmental stress combines with that predisposition to cause them to develop the disorder.

Learning Outcomes

You’ll have the ability to do the following after this lesson:

  • Differentiate between the nature versus nurture views of abnormal psychology
  • Explain how the diathesis-stress model describes those two causes as being intertwined

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