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What Is Normal?

Published by Steven Novella under Logic/Philosophy, Neuroscience

One of the main themes of this blog is metacognition thinking about thinking. This is a critically

important topic because much of our thinking is subconscious, or it is not explicit. This means we are

not aware of exactly how our brains process information and come to certain conclusions or decisions.

In fact, we may have false beliefs about how we

arrive at our decisions.

Cognitive psychologists study how people think, and

knowledge of this field can help us become more

aware of the otherwise unrecognized assumptions or

processes in our decision-making.

Take an apparently simple concept such as normal.

What does it actually mean and how do we use this concept to think about the world? (Normal has a

specific mathematical definition, as in normal distribution, but I am not talking about that here.) A

dictionary definition might be, conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected. This doesnt

quite tell us how we decide what is normal.

In medicine use of the term normal has fallen out of favor, because it is imprecise, and also because

it may contain a moral judgment. We still use it when referring to numbers, such as normal blood

pressure, but even then it is not conceptually precise. Normal may be different for different people in

different situations. When we are making an effort to be clear in our language we will use terms such

as healthy or physiological (which is distinguished from pathological).

In psychiatry especially use of the term normal has fallen out of favor in an attempt to disentangle

moral judgments from clinical judgments.

Recently cognition researchers Bear and Knobe published a paper called: Normality: Part Descriptive,

Part Prescriptive. They also discuss their paper in this New York Times article. Essentially they found

that what people consider to be normal is a combination of what they think is typical and what they

think is ideal. They give a simple example of what they mean. People think that the average number

of hours people watch tv per day is 4. They also think that the ideal numbers of hours to watch tv per

day is 2.5. When asked what is the normal number of hours people watch tv, the average answer

was 3 part way between typical and ideal.

They found the same result for many different examples. They even made up a fake example:

We even made up a story about a fictitious type of tool a stagnar and provided information

about what it was used for and what it typically looked like. Pretty soon, our participants had

developed a conception of the normal stagnar that was intermediate between the average stagnar and

the ideal stagnar.

This findings, if confirmed, has several implications. First, it is just good to know how our brains

typically work. Normal is a combined judgment about what is actually happening and what should

be happening. This confirms what was observed in health care, especially psychiatry, that there is a

moral judgment in deciding what is normal.

This can also mean, however, that when something becomes common it also becomes somewhat

normal. Social psychologists have observed this for a long time different cultures have different

concepts of what is normal. In some cultures it is more normal to, for example, cheat on your taxes,

or inflate prices. The question is is it normal because people do it, or do people do it because it is

considered normal? The answer is probably both behavior and judgment play off each other.

The authors give as an example the apparent recent trend of fake news or politicians boldly lying.

The more this happens, the more it will seem normal, and therefore the more acceptable it will


I think an excellent example of the implications of understanding how we think about normal is

homosexuality. In this case, however, ideology seems to influence how we balance typical and moral in
the calculation of normal. There are those who think, on moral grounds, that homosexuality is

abnormal. They are taking an extreme moral definition of normal.

On the other side are those who think that homosexuality is normal because it is common. About

3.4% of the population self-identify as other than straight. (I wont get into the debate here about

how accurate this number is.) Similar numbers are found in the animal kingdom. For those who feel

that there is nothing morally wrong about homosexuality (and for the record, I count myself in this

group), they emphasize that it is a common variant of human, and in fact animal, behavior.

Whats interesting here is how people can apparently shift their definition of normal to suit their

ideological needs on a specific topic. They can do this easily because they are not explicitly aware of

how we typically decide what is normal.

This example also shows how problematic the concept of normal is, because it is a blend of two factors

that are disconnected. Something can be common but morally wrong, or rare but morally neutral. We

tend to see rare behavior as deviant in some way. In fact, the word deviant is interesting because

it implies deviation from what is typical or average, and also conveys a connotation of morally


We really need to separate this things in our minds, which we can do with effort and discipline. That is

metacognition recognizing that, for whatever reason, we tend to blend two concepts into a messy

amalgam, when in fact it is more precise and useful to keep them separate.

This is where language plays a huge role, because words reflect how we think, and many argue they

constrain how we think. Normal is a messy and imprecise word, and if you use it your thinking is

likely also messy and imprecise. In most situations it is probably best just to avoid the word, and to

think about what you really mean.