1.3 Overview of ‘normality’
Before we can specify what might be ‘abnormal’, we must first have a clear idea of what we mean by ‘normality’. However, within psychology this is much more difficult than it first appears. As our discussion has shown, psychological ‘normality’ can be defined in terms of:
what is ‘average’ or ‘typical’ with respect to statistical frequency;
‘lack of disability’ – where ‘normality’ is defined by reference to an ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ state of functioning;
conformity to social, cultural or historical expectations or norms;
individual well-being or lack of personal distress.
It is important to recognise that these approaches are not mutually exclusive. Thus, ‘normality’ can be defined by calculating statistics on what is most common, as well as by trying to find valid, biologically based criteria of ‘healthy’ functioning. It can also be culturally defined, encompassing social values and expectations, as well as involving appreciation of individual differences and personal well-being. Each of these factors may carry more or less weight, depending on the circumstances and the behaviour(s) being considered. There is so much natural variation in human behaviour and psychological functioning that it is almost impossible to arrive at any universal definition of ‘normality’. This means that attempts to define ‘abnormal’ psychological functioning can be problematic and misleading unless careful consideration is given to the reasons for seeking such a definition.
Why do we need to make a distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’ when we are acutely aware that human psychological life is so diverse? Do you think that society or the individual within it benefits from identifying some types of behaviour as ‘abnormal’?