Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How Do We Define "Normal"

Well I am back sorry for not posting as frequently. I have been getting ready for my thesis defense and have actually taken on another job. This is good and bad. I have more money, but less time. Also, I have this horrible cold yuck :) Anyway enough excuses and complaining on with the real reason that I am posting.

One of the things that is important to understand about psychology is that it is more than working with those people who have psychological problems. In fact more psychology is spent on understanding the average person. This is why most of the studies that I have posted have been about average every day people. For this reason when we study psychology we learn more about the average person than we do about those who have severe mental problems and it is for this reason that by understanding psychology we are able to write better characters in our stories.

The question that comes up often is who is "normal" and who is "abnormal." This is an interesting question because of the differences among people. It is helpful to then say that "normal" is more akin to being able to effectively function within the environment that a person is living. All behavior can be seen to lie on a continuum with effective functioning on one end and mental illness on the other end. Psychologists try to determine where a person lies on this continuum by using several different criteria that must be taken into account.

1)Context of Behavior. Where is the behavior occurring? 

For example I may function normally within my environment, but if you were to put me in the deep jungles of Brazil I would not be functioning very effectively and in fact some of the things that I do in my environment now would seem "crazy" to the natives that I was living with in the jungle. Another example is that it is normal to go shopping, but if a person where to arrive at the grocery store without any clothes and start to shop we would consider this abnormal.

2) Persistence of Behavior. How long has the behavior been going on?

We all of psychotic moments. (You know the ones I'm talking about where you are up late working on a WIP and forget to save it or your hard drive crashes or ....) The problem is when those psychotic moments turn into more than moments and become frequent moments and day long moments.

3)Social Deviance. Is the person acting in the norm?

I often watch people walking around talking to themselves and conclude that they must have a Bluetooth headset on. If people from 10 years ago saw so many people walking around talking to themselves they would think that our entire society had gone insane. This also can relate to the example of the Brazilian jungle that I talked about above.

4) Subjective Distress. Is the person aware of their psychological problems?

Most of us know when we are doing odd things. We know that we have certain problems. This can help in the diagnoses process. However, there are those that don't know about their psychological problems I see these people as those who would more often than not have a personality disorder as opposed to a mental illness. Take for instance a person with a narcissistic personality disorder. This person is unaware of how his/her behavior is disruptive to others. On the other hand a person with depression knows that they are depressed.

5) Psychological Handicap. Does the psychological problem impede the person ability to be satisfied with life?

People with psychological problems often feel dissatisfied with life.

6) Effect on Functioning. Are the person's behaviors interfering with how they want to live their life?

This is probably the biggest question that must be answered in order to understand the mental illness degree of a person. This is why some people with a mental illness do not necessarily need help. For example if a person needs count to ten before going to bed each night while standing on their bed we would consider this odd behavior, but if that is not impeding the persons way of life then there is really no need to address the behavior.

All of these criteria are subjective and as a therapist is evaluating a person the therapist will be making those judgments based on his/her own beliefs of what is "normal." This is why Rosenhan D. L. in 1973 conducted a study "on being sane in insane places." I will discuss this study tomorrow.


  1. Great stuff! Many thanks for sharing. I sometimes wonder if the 'new normal' includes the instant gratification pervasive among some age groups. Hope you feel better soonest. Most everybody I know is fighting a tummy bug or that cough/cold. It seems like, whatever it is, it has to run its course. Take care of yourself.

  2. I hope you feel better soon!

    Interesting points--"normal" is definitely subjective.

  3. Last spring my husband and I went to see the Addams Family Musical. The point behind it is that Wednesday wants to bring home her boyfriend to meet her family. She wants them to be normal. Grandma then says: "Define normal." I love the idea of differences in normalcy and this is especially important when dealing with characters. Just think of the differences between Harry and Ron when they try and function in the other's world.

  4. I like how you point out that psychology is the study of the average. It's a general observation about how people are and respond to certain things. Well written!


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