Yes, people do ask, “Am I normal?” Or sometimes, of course, “Is this normal?” Psychotherapists have endless strategies for avoiding the question (though many answer on face value, weighing the person or the behavior described against the therapist’s understanding of what’s normal).
Perhaps it’s evasive, but I tend to respond by telling the asker that I don’t consider myself much of an expert on what constitutes normal, and then try to offer some other matters that might be considered instead. Like, “Is this good for me?” “Is this good for him/her/them?” “Is this good for us?” “Is this growthful?” “Is this consistent with how I want to be living my life?” For some that’s a welcome change in perspective. But for others, normal is a much harder scale to step off of.
This tendency (and we all have it to some degree) toward gauging what’s “normal” has a history in psychology, referred to by many as the normative bias. Actually, to say that it has a history in psychology is misleading–in many ways it is the history of psychology. Let me see if I can explain.
In the early part of the 20th Century, psychology emerged as a new discipline among social sciences. Due to a number of factors (the beginning of a population shift into cities, immigration, changes in communication and transportation, dramatic increase in public school enrollment, the rise of the factory system of production, the rise of consumerism and advertising, and World Wars I and II) it became both desirable and possible to collect massive amounts of data about human beings. Following the methods of research set out in the natural sciences, psychologists collected data about behavior, emotions, cognition, preferences, personality and lots of other things. This data could be used for a number of different purposes, such as making factories run more efficiently, tracking students for college versus vocational training, and developing product marketing campaigns. (For a terrific, detailed, critical history of psychology, I recommend Naming the Mind: How Psychology Found Its Language by Kurt Danziger.)
Psychologists also began to use this new data to make broad statements about human beings. Inevitably this involved sorting and averaging data to create a so-called picture of normal. The bias here is really a fallacy: Those who sought to make normative statements (i.e. assert what was and wasn’t normal) made the assumption that the average of the numbers assigned to bits of data they collected said something about who human beings were, and, more importantly, said something about who human beings ought to be. In other words, average gave way to normal, thus introducing an implicit moral value.
Allow me to use an non-psychology example to illustrate this point. In New York City eggs are generally sold by either the dozen or the half-dozen (perhaps this is true everywhere, but it’s been a long time since I’ve bought eggs anywhere else). A large supermarket might wish to look at data regarding egg-purchasing trends among their customers. If they did so, they might discover that some customers bought 12 eggs at a time while others bought 6, in roughly even amounts. Let’s imagine the average number of eggs purchased by an egg-buying customer at Bob’s Supermarket was 9.3 eggs. That conclusion could be useful to the marketing department at Bob’s in a number of ways. However, it would be falling prey to the normative bias to make the leap to saying that a normal customer purchases 9.3 eggs; in fact, there could be no argument made that there’s anything normal about buying 9.3 eggs–Bob would no doubt throw you out of his store for trying!
As absurd as this example seems, psychology makes this mistake all the time, and subsequently, we do, too. We assert that because something is average (and we also make this leap from such mathematical concepts as common or typical) that it ought to therefore shape what’s defined as normal. In fact, recognizing this calls into question the very notion of normalcy altogether. It’s made up!
Who wants to be normal (or average or typical) anyway?
A lot of people do, actually, but I think it’s a mistake. Let’s leave the normative bias aside for the moment, and examine the statement, “I want to be more like everyone else,” which is often what’s being said when someone asserts a wish to be more normal.
But let’s take a look around at what everyone else is up to. Take a look at the divorce rate, or the rate of high school dropouts. Look at statistics on crime and violence, drug abuse and depression. Take in the prevalence of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Typical maybe doesn’t look so great.
Say “Goodbye” to normal
Normal is a made up concept. Believing in it drives us nuts. And when we take a look around, it’s not so appealing after all. So what can you replace it with? How about being giving, investing in growth, and focusing on living a life that’s consistent with the kind of person you want to be. Or, you could move even further away from normal and explore the virtues of weird.
Whatever you do, don’t be normal.