I was reading some books about system design the other day, and I noticed that the authors often claimed that a system had some pathological problem.

Is it possible for a problem to be not pathological?

  • 2
    Consult a dictionary for "pathological".
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 19, 2015 at 3:13
  • @HotLicks Of course I have already looked it up. It is a synonym for diseased. I assumed that all problems are kind of pathological, and I didn't understand what did it mean to describe a problem as pathological. Nov 19, 2015 at 3:22
  • 3 : being such to a degree that is extreme, excessive, or markedly abnormal <a pathological liar> <pathological fear>
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 19, 2015 at 3:32
  • 2
    @Satoru.Logic Your question answers itself: one of the meanings of pathology is "any deviation from a healthy, normal or efficient condition." It is often used to refer to diseases of the mind or body. Feeling sad because your cat died is normal. Feeling sad because a cancerous tumour is pressing on your brain and causing mood swings isn't. Feeling sad because you are a guitarist and develop an irrational fear that a worldwide collapse of culture will mean you'll never again be able to buy guitar stings is likewise not normal. I've done the last two. They are pathological problems. Nov 19, 2015 at 3:33
  • 1
    @Satoru.Logic Someone who's nervous about flying but gets on a plane when his travel plans require it has a problem that's not pathological. Someone who is so nervous about being in public that he cannot go outside his house without having a panic attack has a pathological problem.
    – deadrat
    Nov 19, 2015 at 3:50

4 Answers 4


Non-pathological problems are those which are solvable or survivable. Most engineering problems are non-pathological. In engineering pathological usually means a set of circumstances which can lead to catastrophic failure and cannot be fully mitigated against or prevented. The engineering term may borrow the vernacular from medicine, but the meaning doesn't match common dictionary definitions of pathological (neither "relating to the study of the nature of diseases" nor "compulsive"). It may borrow from the mathematical concept of pathological phenomena, those which have counter-intuitive or atypically bad behavior.

  • +1 for providing an engineering-oriented answer as suggested by the context
    – krubo
    Nov 21, 2015 at 22:20
  • thank you, this explains it very clearly. i come from engineering as well and was very confused when this term kept coming up during conversation by one of my colleagues
    – dtc
    Feb 17, 2022 at 17:10

The use of 'pathological' emphasizes that the problem is widespread, persistent and difficult to get rid of. For example, 'corruption within the political spheres is a pathological problem.' In this way, 'pathological' lends its medical meaning to the word problem. However, by stating that a problem is 'a normal problem' does not necessarily emphasize these qualities.


A pathological problem is one that relates to medical conditions/diseases. Consider that the study of pathology is the study of diseases:


  1. the science or the study of the origin, nature, and course of diseases.
  2. the conditions and processes of a disease.
  3. any deviation from a healthy, normal, or efficient condition.


The most common usage of this word in common vernacular is probably in regards to "pathological liars" which are people who lie repeatedly, to the point where it's akin to a mental disorder like OCD.


  1. of or relating to pathology
  2. relating to, involving, or caused by disease
  3. (informal) compulsively motivated: a pathological liar


So by definition most problems are definitely not pathological, as most problems in life have nothing to do with disease or mental illness. Hope that helps.


Maybe a good approach is to look at the etymology: pathos and logia. Also, consider that in the study of disease (logia of pathos) there are two classes: chronic and acute. Additionally, in cancer diagnosis, there are static and metastatic (pervasive) classes. So, even though I think the adjective "pathological" was used just to provide emphasis, it could be a justified use if it refers to the chronic aspect of the problem, or the pervasiveness of the problem.

  • You are correct that in the usage the OP Is complaining about "pathological" means "chronic" or "pervasive".
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 21, 2015 at 19:06

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