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What is 'normal'? Who or what defines what is 'normal'?

Professor Gordon Brown and Principal Teaching Fellow Martin Skinner, Department of Psychology

Published December 2013

The word normal is frequently used to describe all sorts of things including behaviour, personality and even appearance. But is there such a thing as 'normal' and if there is, how do we know what is 'normal'? Professor Gordon Brown and Principal Teaching Fellow Martin Skinner from the Department of Psychology explore this issue.

Woman in sunglassesProfessor Gordon Brown

“People’s ideas today about 'what is normal' are very different to beliefs in the past, and also differ between cultures. However, even within a culture and at a given time, people’s idea of what is normal can be changed and can alter people’s behaviour. For example, telling high energy consumers that neighbours consume less energy can cause the high consumers to reduce the amount of energy they use, and telling hotel guests that most previous occupants of their room recycle their towels can increase recycling. These are examples of 'nudging' people’s behaviour in a desirable direction by telling them what is normal. Nudges often apply when people don’t really know (until they are told) what 'normal' behaviour is.

However there are other cases – many of which have been studied by behavioural scientists – where people have incorrect beliefs about what behaviour is normal in the rest of the population. These incorrect beliefs can influence an individual’s attitudes and behaviour. For example, research in Warwick’s Psychology Department, with colleagues from other universities, has shown that people’s beliefs about whether they are consuming too much alcohol, and their estimates of how likely they are to suffer alcohol-related illnesses, depend on how people think they compare to the rest of the population.

For example, imagine two students who both drink the same amount of alcohol each week. However one student believes that 80% of other students drink more than she does herself; the other student thinks that only 15 per cent of students drink less than he does himself. The second student is likely to be more concerned about her level of drinking than the first, even though in fact they both drink the same amount. Thus the students’ differing beliefs about what is “normal” influence their attitudes. Differing ideas about what is normal can influence people’s perceptions of whether they are exercising enough and their assessments of their own mental state. A PhD student in the Psychology Department, Karen Melrose, recently found that people’s beliefs about whether or not they are depressed are predicted by how they believe – again often incorrectly – that their symptoms relate to those in the rest of the population. In other words, beliefs that one is “abnormal” may partly reflect incorrect beliefs about what is 'normal'.

Phenomena like political polarisation, whereby the statements of opposing political parties become ever more different over time, may also result from systematically biased beliefs about what is normal. For example, if one spends a lot of social time with people similar to oneself (e.g., people who drink a lot, or who have extreme political views) then one may come to believe that certain behaviours (drinking a lot, or expressing extreme views) are more normal than they really are. People with such beliefs may then become less restrained and more extreme in their expressed attitudes and behaviour then they would be if they perceived their behaviour as being as abnormal as it really is within the population as a whole.

Psychologists also study 'false consensus' effects which are tendencies for people to believe that others’ opinions are more similar to their own than is really the case – in other words, people often believe that they are more 'normal' than they really are.

Thus people have their own ideas about what is normal, and are often wrong about it. Incorrect beliefs about what is normal may also reflect media bias. The effect of incorrect beliefs about what is normal on attitudes and behaviour is an important topic of research for behavioural science."

Principal Teaching Fellow Martin Skinner

"'Normal' can have a variety of meanings for a psychologist, as it can do for everyone else. It can mean that everything is correctly present and functioning, with 'not normal' implying 'abnormal'. It can also refer to what we expect to be the case, either for natural reasons (it's normal that babies cry a lot), or it could be because people seem to prefer it that way ("girls cry, but boys don't").

What we most frequently encounter we consider normal. It might be most frequently encountered because it is a consequence of a natural human tendency such as avoiding discomfort, so people normally eat when they are hungry or go to the dentist when they have toothache. However the 'normal' might occur because human beings prefer it that way and do their best to ensure it does indeed happen that way. So it's normal that we don't speak with our mouths full and normal to say 'hello' and 'please' and 'thank you' at appropriate times. These shared expectations about what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour are referred to as 'social norms'. This distinguishes them from the more natural 'statistical' norms.

We like to be able to predict and control our immediate environment, so we like to be in a position to expect what is about to happen, although of course we can be entertained by moderate and safe unexpectedness. We know others feel this way too, so we like to be able to do what they will be expecting and will consider normal. This is a condition for social life in what is, for human beings, a symbolic world based on complex social agreements that can be quite arbitrary. A conspiracy of normalness.

Social psychologists have traditionally distinguished two types of social influence tending to bring about this conspiracy: 'informational influence' and 'normative influence'. Informational influence refers to our tendency to treat other people as sources of information, to look to see what they are doing and thinking and feeling when we are unsure, and to try to do the same. There is no pressure, we just want to do or think the most effective thing and other people are usually a good reference point for this. Normative influence refers to a pressure to conform with others because we want to be accepted. Here we try to do what we think others want, so the motive is belonging or self-enhancement rather than being factually correct."

Professor Gordon BrownProfessor Gordon Brown is based in the Department of Psychology. His research interests include the computational and mathematical modelling of human timing and memory; categorisation, identification, and word recognition; and the interface between economic psychology, cognitive science, and psychophysics.


Dr Martin SkinnerPrincipal Teaching Fellow Dr Martin Skinner is based in the Department of Psychology. His research interests centre the role of the self and selfhood in social behaviour.


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