Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Case for Being Ordinary

It's "normal" for people to be bigoted
I am trying to boycott the word “normal” in my writing because the “normal” mind is not what we think it is. When people think of a normal mind, they are likely to think of a mind that thinks rationally and logically under most circumstances. This is not what normal thinking looks like. Thinking rationally and logically takes great effort and doing it well requires training. Even the most analytical and intelligent of us do not do it except in a small percentage of our thinking tasks. Our brain uses shortcuts to make our thinking more efficient, even though this has significant costs in terms of accuracy.

Psychologists and economists have a great deal of fun (and sell a lot of books) showing how innately irrational humans are. We’ll more easily buy something at $999.99 than at $1,000.00 (a difference of 1/10 of one percent), but we’ll buy coffee at Starbucks rather than turn the coffee pot on in the morning (at least a thousand percent difference). We’ll drink twice as much soda with a meal than we would at home because McDonalds is offering any size for a dollar. It doesn’t matter that the 2-liter bottle at home is cheaper per ounce; it doesn’t matter that we know soda is bad for us and that drinking a huge amount is a stupid thing to do. Speaking of food, think about dieting. Even if we have a huge motivation not to gain weight (ex: an extravagant wedding gown and
wedding photos/videos that we may have to live with for a half century) we still want (and usually eat) desserts and snack food. No matter how many times we read about the statistics that clearly show we are safer flying from point A to point B than driving, most people are much more nervous sitting on the tarmac than they are backing out of their driveways.

Then there’s the problem with word associations. If you’re not “normal,” then what are you? Mel Brooks has the answer for you:
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Abby someone. Abby who?Igor: Abby... Normal. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Abby Normal? Igor: I'm almost sure that was the name. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [chuckles, then] Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half foot long, fifty-four inch wide GORILLA?[grabs Igor and starts throttling him]
This is crippling for people with mental illness. Not only because “normal” people have irrational assumptions about them that persist despite good evidence to the contrary, but also because people with mental illness are pretty “normal” too. They irrationally buy into the stereotype, not only of themselves being "abnormal," but also of the “normal” people being rational and logical almost all the time. Every failure to do the right, logical, rational thing gets blamed on their mental illness by them and by the people close to them. That makes the mental illness seem like an enormous and insurmountable problem to all concerned. In fact, the vast majority of these failures are due to being human, not to being people with mental illness.

There are no “normal” people, just ordinary ones, and people with mental illness are far more ordinary than they or others believe them to be.

What are some of the effects of this irrational thinking on ourselves, our loved ones, our relationships, and our treatment? I'll discuss that in upcoming posts.


  1. way to hit the nail on the head-I'm going to stop wishing to be normal from now on and just concentrate on healthy, you've opened my eyes

    1. Good for you. I just finished reading Incognito, yet another book about how little of ordinary people's thoughts and behavior are "rational." It's pretty good.