In this episode
Who or what is normal? Why does normality hold such a grip on people? Might normal actually be dangerous? No outrageous plans this week, as we dive deep into the terrifying zone of normality.
That’s nice. Completely, utterly normal.
Hello and welcome to Vulnerable By Design with me Chris Onrust. Today we’ve decided just to keep it normal.
Back to normal
You might, at some point in your life, come across someone who says that they want things to be normal. Or, more specifically, that they want things to go back to normal. It’s a bit tricky to think of a recent example here…. Okay, well, nevermind.
Back to normal. What does it actually mean? What is this supposedly distant normal that people say they want to go back to? I suggest that we do a deep dive into the emulsifying bowels of normality. Are you ready?
Take an example. Say that we have a garden full of hyacinths when surveying what grows in the garden, it would be utterly common, usual or typical. To find this fragrant flower, one might say it would be normal to find hyacinths in that garden. Tulips on the other hand, are decidedly not a common or typical find in hyacinth garden. You will not normally encounter a tulip there. I’m not saying that there will be none, only that it would be quite unusual.
Another example. Let’s turn to hairstyles. Say you’re going for a new do and every single person leaving the hairdresser comes out with a mullet. Apparently mullets are completely common, usual and typical in the hair styling domain. It would be, I gather quite, normal in the circumstances for a person to don a mullet. Business in the front, party in the back eh?
Here, with these examples, we’ve got a first bear statement of normality, namely normal as being just what is common, usual or typical. Now if you find a statement of normal still a bit slippery, then I agree with you. But we can make it more precise.
At the core of normal is the idea of frequency. And frequency just means, roughly, how often something is found—either in a specific selection or sample, or over a particular period of time. In statistics, we have what is called the ‘normal distribution’. And a normal distribution also revolves all around frequency. Some properties are said to be normally distributed, for example height or birth weight. ‘Normally distributed’, for a property, just means—put abstractly, but bear with me—that you’ll more frequently find cases of that property with values that are close to what is called the ‘mean or average value for that property, than you’ll find cases that are far removed from the mean.
So take the example of height. You will more frequently—in fact, in the majority of cases—encounter people whose height is roughly close to the average height, than you’ll find people who are either very short, or very tall; this will only be a minority of cases.
Similarly with birth weight. Certainly, some newborns arrive being very light, especially if they were born early. And some individuals are much heavier at birth. But both of those are not very common. Most frequently, a newborn will weigh somewhere in the range between 2.5 and 4.5 kilos at birth.
Now, if you were to plot this graphically on a sheet—drawing a line from left to right, with left representing the lowest birth weight and the right representing the highest—and if you would move your line higher up the page, the more frequently a certain value occurs, and keep your line low for birth weights that occur infrequently, then your graph would look like what people have called a bell shaped curve or ‘bell curve’, which personally I think looks like a symmetrical hill. Around the centre, which captures a range of average birth weight, there’ll be high hilltop which however, drops sharply on both sides that represent the very low birth weights on the left, and the very high birth weights on the right; because both of those occur less frequently.
Strictly, the term ‘normal distribution’ refers to this entire distribution of actual birth weights over all the different possible weights that someone can have at birth. And strictly, not all things we find in the world around us are have normally distributed. For example, I am not. It is not the case that some people are very little Chris, some people are quite a lot of Chris, and then the majority of people are just in what we would call the ‘normal range’ of Chris. Seriously, such a world would be an utter disaster.
But I do think that there’s absolute, pure gold in anchoring or thinking about normal in this clean, strict statistical notion. Here’s why. The key insight, I would suggest, is that when thinking about normal, we do not need to bring in any form of moral considerations or preferences. When starting—even if loosely—from statistics, then we can just talk about it plainly, dryly, descriptively as having to do with frequency. Normal then is what occurs most frequently, or what is within a certain range of what occurs most frequently. And not normal is that which is very infrequent, or that which falls outside of the normal range.
Normal isn’t good (or bad)
Now, I don’t know about you, but personally, I find this utterly liberating. That we can talk about normal and not normal, without bringing in all kinds of values or mores. Which immediately brings me to a core insight.
If normal can indeed be understood just as a statistical descriptor, then that means that normal isn’t good. Normal also isn’t bad. Normal just is. To put it more bluntly: something is never good, just because it is normal. In fact, normal can be pretty awful. In some circumstances, normal can mean: food shortages, zero hour contracts, or for-profit healthcare. Also, not normal can be pretty extraordinary. Think: ultra comfy socks, the most delicious borscht that you’ve ever tasted, and a once-in-a-lifetime, magical all night rave. Sure, these things might be infrequent, and therefore they would technically not be normal. But would you therefore want to miss out on any of that?
Is normal appealing?
Yet, this insight, it does bring up a puzzle. While, as such, normal isn’t good or bad, it just is. Still, it seems that at least some people do see normal as in itself good or appealing. So appealing, apparently, that they want to go back to it. What is going on there? We might get some insight by looking at what normal excludes.
What do we call the opposite of normal? Not normal? That sounds to me like quite a neutral label. How about abnormal, also a very common one. Abnormal refers not only to what is atypical or out of the ordinary, but also has associations of something being undesirable or even bad. Here’s another: pathological—a not too rare counterpart to normal from the field of medicine, where pathology points to physical or mental disease. I think this is indicative. We were just looking at the opposite of normal. And in two jumps, we’re in the territory of things that are bad, undesirable, disordered and diseased. That, as they say, escalated quickly.
Normal v. norms
I suggest that what we’re dealing with here is a muddle. A muddleand a confusion. A confusion between on the one hand normal, normality. And on the other hand norms, or normativity—which is just a fancy word for pretty much the same thing. Let’s unpack that, starting with norms.
What is a norm? Well, a norm officially is a standard, a pattern or a rule, something usual, typical or expected. One example of a norm might be: take off your shoes whenever you go indoors. Or another: offer a decent bow when you’ve received a gift. Norms can be common practice, but they need not be. Even if you yourself regularly stay upright when getting a gift, there might still be the expectation or the implicit rule that you actually ought to have bowed.
Now just between ourselves here: technically, norms do not as such exists out there in the real world. It is not the case that when you step outside in the morning, hot cuppa in hand, that you’ll stumble over a norm or anything. Each and every norm is all, 100% made up by people in societies. Though of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any incredibly powerful pressures and expectations to conform to a whole horde of norms all the same. Believe me, I know.
Why do I say that those are muddle between normal and norms? Well, it’s quite simple. There is no should in normal. Frequencies and regularities do not a norm make. Normal, as we’ve seen, has to do with what is most frequent or common. And while the terms may sound similar, and while norms purport to have to do with what is usual or typical, nonetheless, in addition, they silently, sneakily slip in the idea that whatever is common or usual, would also somehow set a standard or expectation of what should be the case. It’s like moving from the observation: ‘Hey, there’s quite a few people wearing mullets around here’. To: ‘People should wear their hair mullet style’. Or from: ‘There’s mainly hyacinths in that garden. There’s hardly a tulip in sight’. To: ‘There ought be no tulips in here!’ And then frantically started crashing the single tulip out there. That’s … just sad?
Normal describes what is most common. Norms tell you what to do. Mixing these up is, I think it’s fair to say, quite a messy, slippery muddle. Yet a muddle that can actually be rather dangerous and powerful.
Pressure to conform
Conformism is a curious beast. When normal gets used to normatively— moving from a bare description of frequencies to a should—there’s a reasonable chance that this has got to do something with conformity; with pressuring people to conform to whatever rules, standards, or expectations are set out as ‘normal’ by the person or group doing the pressuring. ‘Hey, you’ve got your hair in a bob? That’s actually not that normal over here.’ ‘Normally, we don’t plant any tulips in the garden. Just so you know.’
Humans are socially aware creatures. Of course, such norm-waving puts pressure on people. I mean, I know I feel that pressure. ‘I would love to do a fade in the back, but everybody else has got a mullet. Will I stand out too much? Will people not like me?’ ‘What was I thinking planting that tulip out there? Have I no decency?’ Normal, used normatively, is a really mucid tool to pressure people to behave in a certain way. And, let’s be honest, to demarcate who is part of the ‘in-group’ which is doing things right, or who belongs to the ‘out-group’ and so is definitely, totally wrong.
Normal used in this boggy, messed up way gets something of a magical status. Something that escapes argument and is not in need of any further justification. ‘That’s just how it is.’ ‘That’s just normal over here.’ Yet this confused use of normal as normative can have some pretty powerful side effects. Here’s why. It means that if you can somehow, in some way, make it appear that something is normal—having a mullet, growing hyacinths—then you practically rule the world. Because you will get all of this confused extra leverage in the package of expectations. That normal would somehow be good. That normal is part of what just is. That normal shouldn’t be questioned. A common name for this process, with a fancy term, is ‘normalisation’.
Normalisation is the process through which something comes to be within the range of things or conditions that count as normal, or at the very least, gets to be perceived as falling within such normal range. So if someone would want to normalise the mullet—though it seems rather unfathomable that there’d be any community not already supporting them—then they could get to a perception of mullet-normality by somehow coordinating that the hairstyle is prominently visible everywhere—is worn and endorsed on the streets, in the corridors, online, and through word of mouth. And once the mullet is seen everywhere, it is not improbable that a perception of it as the ‘normal’ hairstyle will result. If so, then the mullet has been successfully normalised. Quite nifty, isn’t it? But also pretty dangerous.
Normal and the urge for normality and may, under some circumstances, be lethal. Consider what is called ‘normalcy bias’. Normalcy bias is a cognitive bias—bias meaning: a systematic pattern or deviation from some standard—which leads people to disbelieve or minimise threats, and have a presumption that all is, and will be, normal. For instance, it may lead people not to evacuate in case of a flood warning. To assume that there’ll be no market crash, because all has gone well so far. (The bliss of short term memory!) It may lead people to continue wrecking the planet because we need GDP growth. Ehm, no, sorry, that’s actually not normalcy bias, that just plain self-annihilating folly. Normalcy bias is the ultimate this-is-fine-mood when things are decidedly not fine.
Normalcy also kills. Or, let me correct that: people sometimes kill other people, when they perceive that those other people—for whatever made-up random reason—do not fit the expectation of what is normal, and find that anything outside of normal is somehow completely utterly intolerable to them. This, my friends, is called a hate crime and I can assure you, it’s decidedly not normal. So don’t do this, okay?
If we started out thinking of normal as something cosy, comfy and familiar, then I think it may by now be clear that, as soon as we dig a little deeper (and especially as soon as we start confusing normal with normativity), here be dragons.
What then is a fellow to do? Let’s return to this good old phrase ‘back to normal’ again. We can now see that normal isn’t good or bad. It just is. So whenever someone says they want things to go back to normal, all this says is that they want things to revert to a situation prior in time (because ‘back’) when whatever is most common or frequent is different from what is most common or frequent today. However unfulfilling, however misshapen, or however exploitive that prior ‘normal’ may have been. But upon reflection, why would anyone want that? Yes, I know, it’s well-known and familiar. But instead of hunkering back to some distant comfort from the past, if you ain’t chuffed with today’s affairs, why not define a positive vision for how things could be better? Better, regardless of whether this was common or frequent at some point in the past. And, believe it or not, I think that a pinch of normalisation might actually help out here.
Once you realise what a colossal pull the idea of normality has on people, you might just as well try to use it to your advantage. So if, in your positive vision of how things could be better, you find anything that you think should be more common, or occur more frequently, then few things might be more effective than making that something seem completely, utterly normal. Decent pay? ‘That’s just how we do things around here.’ Full on file sharing? ‘Always been like that, always will be.’ Free parties? ‘You weren’t seriously suggesting we do anything else, were you?’
Sure, I fully admit that exploiting people’s cognitive biases in this way is a bit cheeky. But seriously, there’s always going to be some things that are normal in the statistical sense. Then we might just as well make this ever-present, ever-flexible normal, something worthwhile. Now, where’s my tea again?
Thank you for joining us at Vulnerable By Design this week. If you’d like to hear more or get in touch, you’ll find all our episodes and more information on vulnerablebydesign.net. I am Chris Onrust. Thank you for listening and bye for now.
- Normal Distribution, on Wolfram MathWorld
- A section on normalcy bias in the article ‘The continuity principle: A unified approach to disaster and trauma’ (🔓 find on SciHub)
- On the Normal and the Pathological (orig. 1943), by George Canguilhem