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Failure to function

Article outlining 'failure to function' and the limitations of this approach.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

As you learned in an earlier step, another criterion that has been used to define abnormality is that of ‘failure to function’. What exactly is a failure to function and how does this help us to define mental health issues?

The meaning of the term ‘failure to function’

‘Failure to function’ refers to a person who is unable to cope with the demands of everyday life. It involves them being unable to perform necessary day-to-day tasks such as: self-care, holding down a job, interacting meaningfully with others, and making themselves understood.

Rosenhan and Seligman (1989) have suggested the following characteristics that define failure to function adequately:

  • Suffering
  • Maladaptiveness (danger to self)
  • Vividness and unconventionality (stands out)
  • Unpredictably and loss of control
  • Irrationality/incomprehensibility
  • Causes observer discomfort
  • Violates moral/social standards

If more than one of these characteristics are present, a person is considered to be abnormal according to this definition.

Limitations of the failure to function approach

There are several limitations associated with this definition.

Many people, for example, participate in behaviour that is maladaptive and or harmful but that is not considered to be abnormal. Smoking, drinking alcohol, being obese, speeding and skipping classes are all examples of this (McLeod 2018).

Equally people can feel uncomfortable around a person but it does not have to be because they are ‘abnormal’.

Your task

Look again at Rosenhahn and Seligman’s (1989) list of characteristics that define failure to function adequately.
  • Which of them do you consider to be a characteristic of the failure to function adequately? Explain your choice.
Post your thoughts in the comments area.


McLeod, S. (2018) ‘Abnormal Psychology’ [online]. available from [16th November 2018]

Rosenhan, D.L. and Seligman, M.E.P. (1989) Abnormal Psychology. 2nd edn. New York: W.M. Norton

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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