What is normal and to what extent can psychology use culture to define it?

October 28, 2017



Normal is, in the psychological sense, proven to be the need for one to fit into and conform to the rest of society. What various cultures consider normal is so deeply ingrained within each and every society that it dictates the very moral, social and psychological compasses societies are built upon. This is why, as we prove further on, being, or at least appearing, normal is so deeply ingrained within our very essence. The greatest issue with our current definition of society is that any action that may benefit the individual, such as drinking alcohol, which has a number of proven benefits to the human body, can be considered abnormal in society due to the cultural norms prevailing in that location. Culture, at its essence, is humans imposing their individual worldviews upon society trying to make the world they wish to live in on a personal, societal and global level. Unfortunately, due to differences between individual beliefs this results in a number of problems as people try to impose their own beliefs over others. This results in a those that make up a large demographic of society being able to overrule the beliefs of minorities.


Keywords: normal, culture, psychology, behavior, habit




Various definitions have been supplied throughout history to define normal: typical from the 16th century, standing at a right angle from the 17th century, conforming to common standards from the 19th century but today we will look at normal from a psychological viewpoint. Normality is a necessary criteria for culture to exist that is so deeply ingrained within each culture that the moral, social and psychological compass of a society is based on what is considered normal. We must first address what we mean by culture and by psychology to fully understand to what extent it can be used to define normal. Firstly we will discuss normal in the psychological sense, the origins of culture, its use and how the two are intrinsically linked.


Stigma surrounding Normal


Psychology dictates that we have an inherent need and desire to fit in with and conform to our society. Society has certain values, its norms, which are followed by all people living inside this society: either out of approval, fear or incentive. Normal itself is a troubling word due to the various biases attached to it, especially when assigned in scientific terms normal often ends up meaning “good” while abnormal ends up meaning “bad”. In the same way normal can be considered “healthy” while abnormal is considered “unhealthy”. With such baggage attached psychologists and linguists alike wonder whether the word should even be used for it often has the opposite of the desired effect and can easily cause offence to those who have the misfortune of falling in the abnormal category. The power of language can be seen in the abuse of the word “nigger”. It is derived from the Latin word “neger” which simply means the colour black however through its malevolent use by colonialists has warped into a derogatory term for black people.


Furthermore, in psychology simple sadness is often misconstrued as depression and simple shyness as social phobia broadcasting the problem of medical practitioners taking it into their own hands to define what is normal thought and behaviour. “We’ve narrowed healthy behaviour so dramatically that our quirks and eccentricities- the normal emotional range of adolescence and adulthood- have become problems we fear and expect drugs to fix”. This quotation by Christopher Lane illustrates the problem of using normal as a psychological term and warns of the slippery slope it causes of an overmedicated world where everything which makes an individual distinctive is considered abnormal and some sort of a problem. The problem with the current perception of normality is that something which is healthy and good for the individual may be considered abnormal in the society they live in due to cultural norms which leads us into our second point of discussion.



Culture from a Psychological viewpoint


Culture is essentially a reflection of the kind of world we wish to live in on a personal, societal and global level. The reason we as a people create religions, cultures and moral values is to shape the world into what we envision it as and these systems are fulfillments of our vision.

Through this origin of culture we can see the problems it creates mostly due to differences of opinion. Since the goal in life is to create the kind of reality which we wish to experience people have disagreements over what kind of reality they want to experience, to what extent they want to experience it and in what way they wish to create this experience. Culture represents a generalisation of the beliefs, values and opinions of people living in that society which creates an issue for the minority group which does not identify with that viewpoint, which incites resentment and discontent from the “group” or the society.


Cultural normality can lead to subtle yet dangerous discrimination and disadvantages against those considered abnormal. Studies conducted in European Nations show that when people are asked to categorise a white women they say she’s a woman but while asked to categorise black men and black women they categorise them as black. Furthermore, culture gives us the idea of stereotyping people into different identity groups and treating them based on our perception of those groups which is a dangerous and dehumanising act to do. In this sense the further removed from what is normal in society you are the harder life is from an economic, social and even safety viewpoint with minority groups, those considered abnormal, often being victims of violence and discrimination.


Overall, culture offers a means of expression to those who make up a large demographic in society and a means of oppression to those who do not.


Now that we understand our premises and parameters it’s important to answer two important questions:


1) Can we understand normality using culture and to what extent is this possible?

2) Can we define what is normal given the baggage and complexity behind the word?



Link between Culture and Normal


To answer the first question we look at the advantages and disadvantages of sociocultural normality. The advantages of behaving normally according to culture is better communication and being more able to predict the behaviour of others in society. It also helps you gain a broad understanding of the acceptable behaviour within that society which can guide you on how to fit within that system. However, from a psychological perspective mental health and social norms are not directly relatable and neither is mental impairment and social unconformity providing no link between health and normality.  Using culture we can also understand historical normality which is based on the principle of precedent and customs.


The psychological reasoning behind this is very simple, we as a species love tradition and are resistant to change in our opinions, beliefs and world perspectives. We are less concerned in obtaining objective truth and more in justifying the subjective truth we have already attached ourselves with. However, such a view on normality forgets situational and functional morality which are the rules we follow which seem reasonable for specific situations and the ability to function in society without causing harm to others respectively. Furthermore, a culturally based view on normality poses a threat to medical normality again due to the various biases attached to the word especially in its cultural context of the acceptable and approved behaviours within the community


Definition of Normal


Moving on to the second question on the possibility of providing a satisfactory definition of normal. As the examples in my introduction stated normal is a word whose meaning has shifted over the ages and time periods in different societies and cultures. Currently there are six theories of normal: Cultural, Functional, Historical, Situational, Medical and Statistical. While a simple word on the surface, it is riddled with complex theories which can often overlap with and compete with each other making it quite a complex issue to define.


However in Charles M. Duhigg “The power of Habit” the influence of habit is discussed and related to what society considers normal, and how out of sheer addiction it becomes part of our culture. How the habit loop: the cue, the routine and the reward results in us perpetuating ideologies and actions that we don’t necessarily agree with, simply because it is easier. An example, the entire western world continues to live in and agree with the capitalism system simply because it is easier to take advantage of a system already in place rather than the unknown. In essence, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. In Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow” we learn of the prospect theory; how people would rather avoid loss than achieve gain and how this mentality has continued throughout cultures shaping the world today.


With no absolute definition people have taken the word and attached whatever idea they seem to be promoting no matter how contradictory those ideas may be. Furthermore, it raises the question who gives normality this power? This issue has two layers firstly the governments and regimes in power who enforce their own definitions of what is normal cancelling out other less popular counter-narratives. And secondly the silent people who do not safeguard their own rights and use their powers of expression are also to be held accountable for allowing these narratives to take hold within society.




These are the various issues and intricacies we have found in defining what is normal especially from a socio-cultural perspective. The problem of the abuse of language is the most important issue to address. Especially with its negative medical connotations the words normal and abnormal can negatively harm the psyche of people with no illnesses or problems simply because they aren’t normal. To remedy this a takeover of the word and how it is used in medical literature is necessary drawing clear distinctions between normal and healthy.


Next, it is important to safeguard the rights of groups who do not fit into societal norms. These can be groups discriminated against due to race, gender, sexuality or nationality. Such people are dehumanised and reduced down to their group instead of seen as thinking, breathing individuals and to fix this we must focus on the youth and younger generations by teaching diversity in schools and instilling values of tolerance at home.


The third issue of the dominant narrative in society forming the culture of that society is possibly the most difficult to have an effect on. For this the most important solution is speech as the more opinions are expressed, the more recognition minority opinions will receive and the more the status-quo can thus be challenged. We can only question the narrative of society if we have a counter-narrative to go against it and thus we must provide avenues through which minorities can express these opinions safely. One such avenue could be politics and getting more people out and speaking in the public form would give us a larger diversity in politics.




In the end what is normal remains more of a philosophical question than a scientific one. Considering the different implications of using normal in different circumstances the word surely has more than just one meaning and the way normal is abused in common vernacular has become a humanitarian problem. At the end of the day socio-cultural normality is still how society wants us to behave and act but our norms aren't made by society but instead the people that live in that society. To answer the question normal is too complex to give a definite answer but the most truthful thing we can say is that normal is whatever we make it out to be. Culture can help define this to some extent but it does not fully explain the complexities of normality.



  1. ‘The interpretation of Dreams - Sigmund Freud’

  2. ‘Thinking, fast and slow - Daniel Kahneman’

  3. ‘Shyness: how normal behaviour became a sickness - Christopher J. Lane’

  4. ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking - Susan Cain’

  5. ‘Waking up - Sam Harris’







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