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What is Normal?

Ljones's picture
What is normal? Everyone has a gut feeling about what "normal" is, but actually defining it is a little more difficult. No words seem to encapsulate what normal is, and it seems to change depending on where and who you are. defines normal in several ways. In a psychological sense, normal is: "a) approximately average in any psychological trait, as intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment; b) free from any mental disorder; sane" [1]. Biologically, it means "a) free from any infection or other form of disease or malformation, or from experimental therapy or manipulation; b) of natural occurrence" [1]. Statistically, normal is defined as "the average or mean" [1]. In everyday usage, normal is "conforming to the standard of the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural; 2. serving to establish a standard" [1]. What is interesting is that many of these define normal by describing it as what it is not. For example, normal is without disease or infection, or "not abnormal."



Normal, to me, seems a little more relative than these definitions would lead one to assume. A single mother, struggling to buy groceries, seems "normal" in today's society. A couple of decades ago, however, the fact that she was single would have made her extremely abnormal, even though she was "free from any infection... sane... and approximately average in any psychological trait." Even nowadays, if you put that same woman in a suburban setting, in a development where white-picket fences dominated, she would still be abnormal despite divorce rates being at about 50% in our culture, and thus her being close to the "average or mean" of the population. Both suburban housewives and single moms lead "normal" lifestyles, yet they are so different that in direct comparison, they are alien to one another. Are they really both normal?


Based on the example of the two mothers, normal could be based on social interactions-those people who you see on a regular basis make up what is normal for you, and anything that falls outside of that day to day experience is abnormal. Which would explain why a single mother in the suburbs could be considered abnormal even though looking at population averages she's well within the mean-stereotypically, people in the suburbs are not struggling single moms, so she would be the odd one out. Of course, with social interactions as your definition, someone in an insane institution could meet a mentally healthy person and consider them abnormal. Would they be right? In the wider population, being undiagnosed is more normal than being diagnosed with a mental illness, but in the setting of an insane asylum, where most of the people are not sane, do the sane people become weird? Or are the mentally ill abnormal despite their numbers? I suppose it would depend on who you asked.


If being normal is individual, however, how is it that everyone has a sense of what it is? Obviously not everyone shares the exact same views on what is normal, but most people hold very similar views, and even intolerance, about what is abnormal. This collective knowledge of what is not normal without a real definition of what is normal is seems problematic.


In researching what people consider is normal for this paper, I found several interesting ways in which people check up on whether they are normal or not. The most obvious is when researchers take a wide range of data and actually compare individuals to the population means. Anything that does not fall within specific parameters is abnormal, which is a pretty good rule, except that strictly using this definition has two problems: 1) someone who is outrageously smart would then be considered abnormal, while people typically reserve this word for things with a negative connotation; and 2) many things which we, as humans, can categorize as abnormal cannot be quantified easily by researchers. For example, how does one determine whether a specific experience I had today was normal or not? How do you rate people's experiences when they can range so wildly even within one person's life? My experiences at college, living in my dorm room, are incredibly different than my experiences while at home over break: the weather is only mildly cool, I drive a lot more, I get to see my parents and I do not have any classes, papers or homework at home. Do these differences make home abnormal compared to school? I don't think so.


So, if things can be different, but still normal, we are back at our original issue of how to measure normality. People have come up with some very interesting ways of making sure that they are still normal. Several websites are dedicated to measuring this normality, albeit unscientifically. Basically, people put up stories anonymously, and other people read the stories and rate them on a scale or normalcy. As you look down the list, the stories go from most normal to most out there. [2] And while there is some discrepancy on what is exactly normal-very little is rated 100% either way-the comments that people write about the stories seem to match how weird the story is (i.e. there aren't any comments for someone's story with a rating of 21% normalcy that say, for example, "this happened to me the other day, it's completely normal!" Instead, the people who voted normal show hesitancy and debate over whether or not it was normal and decided to give the storyteller the benefit of the doubt instead of being truly comfortable with their decision) [2].


With people going to such lengths to stay within the confines of normal, it must be benefitting us in some way. Why would people fight so hard to prove that they are normal if it wasn't a good thing? Evolutionarily it makes sense to want to be normal, because it gives you access to a social group and thus all of the things that the social group has to offer, namely opportunity to find a mate, resources that one could not get on their own, and safety. So, it makes sense that our definition of normal revolves around what it is not because abnormal would be people with which we would not feel comfortable sharing our resources etc.


If this evolutionary view of normal is correct, however, how do you know when someone is abnormal enough to be kicked out of the social group? There are several mental and physical health issues here that turn this black and white description of normal a little grey. Autism, for one, is certainly a social disorder, but are autistic people really that different than "neurotypical people." And if they are different, are they abnormal in the sense that they are less than normal, or are they abnormal in the way a genius would be abnormal? Autistic people certainly seem to think they are just as capable as neurotypics, and those that are of average intelligence are often very successful. [3]


Tourette's syndrome, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia... all of these "disorders" have unique skills that go along with their disabilities. Touretters typically have extremely fast reflexes, and can actually control their voluntary motions more quickly and more accurately than children of the same age, [4] and people who are bi-polar often talk about the intense creativity that is sparked within them during their manic phases. [5] All of these conditions and many more supposedly create very different people than those of most of the population. But are they really abnormal? And if they are, is this really a bad thing? Touretters tic, but lots of people understand the urge to speak out of turn or to randomly skip down the street or to jump up and down. That they are able to inhibit these unwanted movements is what differentiates them from someone with Tourette's syndrome, but does it actually make them that different? Everyone has bad days some times, and everyone feel ecstatic on occasion, and it doesn't always have to do with what's going on in their lives. It doesn't mean they have bi-polar disorder, but it might mean that those with bi-polar disorder aren't as different as they are made out to be. The same is true for any number of syndromes, diseases and infections. They make us different, but since no one is really the same, does it actually make us not normal?


Normalcy is something that is different for everyone. It is a social construct based on cultural values and relative norms. There is no good definition of normal, and the above explanation should explain why there cannot be such a definition. The discussions we have had in class about mental health seem to have come to the same decision-that health is a changing idea, different for everyone. The idea that normal can change from person to person, or even within a person from time to time means that one should never constrict the definition of normal. Anything and anyone can be normal if given enough time to get used to it/them, and the beauty of life is in the wide spectrum of experiences that we can enjoy.




[1] "Normal." 2008. LLC. 18 Dec. 2008 <http://>.

[2] "Is it Normal?" 2008. Is It 18 Dec. 2008 <http://>.

[3] Muskie. "What is NT?" What is NT? 18 Mar. 2002. Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical. 18 Dec. 2008 <http://>.

[4] Mueller, Sven, Georgina Jackson, Ranu Dhalla, Sophia Datsopoulos, and Chris Hollis. "Enhanced Cognitive Control in Young People with Tourette's Syndrome." Current Biology 16 (2006): 570-73.


[5] Krishna, HimaBindu. "Bi-polar disorder and the Creative Genius." Biology 202. 4 Jan. 2008. Serendip. 18 Dec. 2008 <http:///exchange/node/1726>.


jrlewis's picture

Another direction could be

Another direction could be considering the usefulness of the concept normal.  Knowing something about the standards of society might be important for communication or challenging them.  Reminds me of Martin's paper and professor Grobstein's comments. 
Paul Grobstein's picture

normalcy and mental health

"are they really abnormal? And if they are, is this really a bad thing?"

One can, as you, define "normal" in statistical terms, in which case one can fairly easily say what is "abnormal." The problem then isn't so much in the definition of either term but rather in the additional meanings we tend (unconsciously?) to associate with the terms, ie that normal is "good" and not normal is "bad."

Actually, as you point out, we don't consistently make that association. "Genuises" are clearly not normal, but are (to some people at least) "good." The same holds for very fast runners, swimmers, etc. Perhaps the assocation really is specific to the social group context, as per "abnormal enough to be kicked out of the social group." So the associated meaning for statistically normal is "good for the social group" and for statistically abnormal is "bad for the social group"?

This would certainly mean that the associated meaning of "normal" is "social construct based on cultural values" but, perhaps even more importantly, it would suggest that group values seem generally to promote homogeneity, ie to encourage people to stay near statistical norms. How could one reconcile that with "the beauty of life is in the wide spectrum of experiences that we can enjoy"? Could one conceive/implement a social group that encourages heterogeneity? See Must cultures disable? and following comments.