493: Normal

What importance (socially or personally) does the word “normal” hold to you?

Full episode script

Back in episode 143, we talked about the idea of “normality” and how the idea of normality can be as damaging as it is useful. Normal as a statistical average can be very useful — especially when you’re figuring out the details. The problem, though, is that normal also can cause a number of issues.

The fact is, normal only exists in theory. As humans, nobody is 100% in the middle of every standard deviation. Quoting from Todd Rose’s book “The End of Average”:

Back in 1926, when the army was designing its first-ever cockpit, engineers had measured the physical dimensions of hundreds of male pilots (the possibility of female pilots was never a serious consideration), and used this data to standardize the dimensions of the cockpit. For the next three decades, the size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and stick, the height of the windshield, even the shape of the flight helmets were all built to conform to the average dimensions of a 1926 pilot.

There were some significant problems with pilots losing control of their aircraft, however. So they commissioned a study to see what the new “average” of their pilots are and what they should design for. What they found, however, is that not a single one of the pilots measured fit within a very generous definition of “average.”

Even so, there’s a lot of power that the idea of “average” or “normal” holds for a lot of people. As Christina Tworek, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote in LiveScience about her research, there is a tested link between what’s considered “normal” and what is considered “good” or “normal”. When we the world is described to us in terms of efficient or non-complex explanations, then we tend to connect those basic outlines as morally good, and anything outside of those explanations as morally bad.

This is why villains in fiction are often shown as deviating from the norm is some visible way, and why the idea of “normal” holds so much power in our minds. Beyond a placeholder for morality, normal has a different definition in each of our minds. Which is why…

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.