Feb 02 2017

What Is Normal?

normal-spider-flyOne 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 doesn’t 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 become.

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 won’t 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.

What’s 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 repugnant.

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.

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