Credit Oscar Bolton Green
Perhaps the answer seems obvious: What’s normal is what’s typical — what is average.
But in a recent paper in the journal Cognition, we argue that the situation is more complicated than that. After conducting a series of experiments that examined how people decide whether something is normal or not, we found that when people think about what is normal, they combine their sense of what is typical with their sense of what is ideal.
Normal, in other words, turns out to be a blend of statistical and moral notions.
Our key finding can be illustrated with a simple example. Ask yourself, “What is the average number of hours of TV that people watch in a day?” Then ask yourself a question that might seem very similar: “What is the normal number of hours of TV for a person to watch in a day?”
If you are like most of our experimental participants, you will not give the same answer to the second question that you give to the first. Our participants said the “average” number was about four hours and the “normal” number was about three hours. In addition, they said that the “ideal” number was about 2.5 hours. This has an interesting implication. It suggests that people’s conception of the normal deviates from the average in the direction of what they think ought to be so.
Our studies found this same pattern in numerous other cases: the normal grandmother, the normal salad, the normal number of students to be bullied in a middle school. Again and again, our participants did not take the normal to be the same as the average.
Instead, what people picked out as the “normal thing to do” or a “normal such-and-such” tended to be intermediate between what they thought was typical and what they thought was ideal.
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.
These results point to something surprising about the way people’s minds work. You might imagine that people have two completely distinct modes of reasoning: On one hand, we can think about how things typically are; on the other, we can think about how things ought to be.
But our results suggest that people’s minds cannot be divided up so neatly in this way. People might sometimes be able to separate out the average from the ideal, but they more often make use of a kind of reasoning that blends the two together into a single undifferentiated judgment of normality. This apparently instinctive judgment appears to play an important role in people’s ordinary way of making sense of their lives and the world around them.
The consequences can be serious. Our research suggests, for example, that as President Trump continues to do things that once would have been regarded as outlandish, these actions are not simply coming to be regarded as more typical; they are coming to be seen as more normal. As a result, they will come to be seen as less bad and hence less worthy of outrage.
Our work thus offers support for those who worry about “normalization”: that things, simply by becoming more common, become more acceptable. (The same holds true for gay marriage, or gender reassignment surgery, or any other controversial institution or practice that becomes more widespread.)
Likewise, people’s attitudes toward atypical behavior are frequently colored by this blended conception of normality. When a kid does not have the usual interests or the usual haircut, his peers do not view his behavior simply as atypical or statistically infrequent. They view it as abnormal — as weird or deviant. The result can be ostracism or bullying.
There is, fortunately, some good news. However deeply ingrained this cognitive tendency may be, people are not condemned to think this way. You are certainly capable of distinguishing carefully between what is typical and what is good. You are able to understand that something occurs frequently without also thinking that it is morally acceptable, or that something occurs infrequently without thinking that it is weird or deviant.
But this type of thinking, which takes some discipline, is no doubt more the exception than the rule. Most often, we do not stop to distinguish the typical from the acceptable, the infrequent from the deviant. Instead, we categorize things in terms of a more basic, undifferentiated notion of normality, which blends together these two importantly different facets of human life.
Combating this tendency in ourselves and others is — perhaps now more than ever — something to be vigilant about.
Adam Bear is a graduate student in psychology, and Joshua Knobe is a professor of cognitive science and philosophy, at Yale.