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Home / Advice / Communication Issues / What is Normal? Understanding the Complexities of Statistical and Social Definitions in Human Behaviour

What is Normal? Understanding the Complexities of Statistical and Social Definitions in Human Behaviour

By: Mauro Lacovich

Updated: 22 December 2023

What is Normal? Understanding the Complexities of Statistical and Social Definitions in Human Behaviour

Normal is an everyday term we use. For most of us, it has a reasonably clear meaning; the opposite of abnormal, the way it should be, what’s correct or desirable.

The term normal can be used in many contexts, but when using it to describe people, this everyday term can be damaging. The language we use in describing human behaviour can have a major impact, yet we casually throw around the term ‘normal’ without asking ourselves how this famous ‘normality’ is determined.

Defining Normality

There are two definitions of normality, statistical and social. Let's begin by examining the statistical definition.

Statistically Normality

Statistically normal encompasses everything on average representing the majority. Any rare or unique deviations are considered abnormal. In the transportation industry, for instance, using an aircraft engine that deviates from the majority can lead to accidents, justifying the categorisation as abnormal. However, when we apply this statistical norm to people, it implies that individuals like Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, or Stephen Hawking are simply, abnormal.

Social Normality

According to this definition, anything that society defines as abnormal is abnormal, simple as that. We can see the challenges of this definition without going far in history. It used to be abnormal for women to wear pants, for women to go to college, for men to stay at home and take care of the children and it was abnormal to divorce or have sex before marriage.

We don’t have to dig too deep to understand the social constructs of normality. Attitudes and behaviour towards animals for example. The next time you're tucking into a juicy beef burger, consider India, where cows are sacred and beef is illegal in most states. Or, while walking your dog, reflect on China and the dog meat festival, an example that is perceived as cruel by the majority but normalised by those participating.

Changing Our Perceptions of Normality

Now that we've established these two definitions of normality, let's explore an imaginary scenario where both definitions converge. Picture a planet inhabited by blind individuals, a highly advanced civilisation that excels in space travel and disease cures, yet all its inhabitants are blind. Despite this, society functions seamlessly, and everything is considered entirely normal. Now, consider a child born on this planet with developed vision. Is this child considered normal in such a society, and how does the community ensure a normal life for them?

This hypothetical example challenges our beliefs and attitudes, presenting a significant dilemma similar to the one we encounter when labelling someone as not behaving normally. It urges us to re-examine and evolve our beliefs, attitudes, and values, emphasising the importance of accepting that reality can be different and broader than our current understanding

Diversity and Acceptance

Accepting our normality as the only and universal truth can lead to misunderstandings and problems. The example can be transferred to many situations in interpersonal relationships. 

For example,

A father with a ten-year-old girl sat opposite the elderly woman in the train compartment. The little girl looked out the window and repeatedly shouted: "Dad! Look at the trees! Dad, look at the house! Dad, what's that?" "It is so sad to see such a child," the woman addressed the girl's father. "It must not be easy to be a parent to a child with special needs?" "She is not a child with special needs," replied the father. "We are coming back from the hospital where they restored her sight after being blind for 5 years."


It isn’t surprising that a woman would reach that conclusion, given that the observed behaviour aligns with what is deemed normal for children with special needs. However, just as that woman quickly drew her conclusion, people often hastily label someone’s behaviour as abnormal. So, the next time we feel inclined to judge someone as not behaving normally, let’s pause and consider what that person could be experiencing. Additionally, contemplate the possibility that that individual may be coming from a different cultural background. Instead of fixating on notions of normality, let’s embrace the perspective of diversity and acceptance.


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