The French philosopher Albert Camus is credited with the quote; “Nobody realises that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal”.
But what does it mean to be normal?
Well that depends on a variety of factors like: where you are, who are with and what you are doing. For example, if I told you that I was writing this whilst sipping on snake wine, would you consider that normal? I’ll give you a second to confirm online that it’s a real thing…
Except if you have ever visited a night market in Taipei then you would already know it to be real. Chances are, if you’re European like me, then the idea of snake wine might seem bizarre. Yet in my European country we mix the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep together, encase it in the sheep’s stomach and hey presto, we have a national delicacy. The point here is that there is no such thing as normal because it varies so much between groups, countries and cultures.
But I’m being disingenuous. Normal exists, though it is more fluid than concrete. And people go to extraordinary lengths (the pun here will become apparent…) to fit in with whatever normal happens to be in their environment. Take an experiment from the 1950s, when a psychologist placed participants into different groups and asked them to determine which line in a set of three was the longest. This wasn’t a trick, the longest line was obvious. Sound simple enough?
Except in each group only one participant was genuine. The rest were insiders instructed to give the wrong answer every time. Interestingly, around 75% of genuine participants agreed with the wrong answer at least once, while a third agreed on the majority of trials. In a control group with no pressure to conform, less than 1% gave the wrong answer.
So why did they go along with the incorrect answer? The majority said afterwards that they did not really believe what they were saying, but went along with it through fear of being ridiculed. That’s extraordinary. A person was willing to give an obviously wrong answer so they wouldn’t be considered different in a group of complete strangers. The most absurd aspect being that inside the participant’s head, giving an answer that was clearly incorrect seemed the less weird choice!
So then, where does this strong desire to fit in come from?
The answer may be rooted in our evolutionary instincts for self-preservation. We evolved in small tribes, where those in the tribe (in-group) were considered more like us compared to those in rival tribes (out-group). In this context, tribe members were more likely to abide by the norms of their ‘in-group’ so as not to stand out and risk being left to fend for themselves.
Granted, many ideas based on our evolutionary past can be argued as speculative. However, there are experiments that give some credence to the idea. For example, a study by the University of Missouri found that people’s identification with their in-group becomes stronger when they feel in mortal danger and we rely on our in-group more when we feel most at risk. Indeed, a 2017 study found that pupils who deviated most from the personality norm of their class were at highest risk of being bullied or shunned. This is interesting as the experiment accounted for the fact that normal varied depending on the class.
Going further, there are extreme examples from the real world where those who do not fit in with what is considered normal can be in mortal danger. Many of the people who died during witch trials were chosen because they were different; not confirming to the religious, political or social norms of their environment. In Nazi Germany, many people later said they did not agree with what was happening but they did not want to set themselves apart from the crowd for fear of the consequences. In fact, the whole Nazi ideology was built on the notion that Jewish people and other minority groups were not human, never mind not normal. So the consequences of not being normal can range from the odd stare to the loss of life. It is little wonder that people are so keen to be considered part of the group, to fit in. To be considered normal.
So why then, do some people have to try so hard to be normal, considering the apparent benefits of being normal?
Well the notion of normal is simply the way in which the majority, in a specific place and time, behave. Another way to think of it is the average behaviour. Many things can be marked on what is known as a bell curve, essentially an upside down U with slightly elongated ends. The majority of attributes fall under the largest area of this bell curve but as you move further away from this area towards the elongated ends, the characteristics you find are less common. A simple example is height. Most people will fall within an average range of heights, but the further you go from this average, the less people you’ll find. Consider how many people you’ve seen who are the size of Sultan Kösen (at 8ft 3 inches, he is the tallest man currently living), compared to people the same height as you. If you are reading this Sultan then please ignore this example…
If you consider behaviour on a similar scale, then it follows there will be people who don’t naturally fall into the normal behavioural patterns. Unlike with height however, the consequences can be more serious than banging your head on a doorframe.
It is those people that are trying hard to be normal, to be more like the people under the big area of the bell curve but these people are often fighting against their natural tendencies, all to simply fit in.
Then again, not everyone chooses to be normal; many people are comfortable being considered weird or different. Why not? If you are in an environment where you can safely live outside normal because that is who you are then more power to you; embrace and enjoy it. However, if you don’t, and the consequences of not being normal are dangerous to you or your family, then I certainly won’t judge you for saying line B is shorter than line A, when both you and I know it is not.