Ambiguous Normalcy

I’ve never really liked the concept of normal being applied to behaviour, whether individually or societally. At a micro level, it might be fine, and one can assess a deviation from a norm, but at a macro level, we have averages of averages, so how many dimensions need to be out of calibration and for how long to be considered abnormal.

Moreover, statistically speaking, where we have a normal (Gaussian) distribution, we might consider a mean and a certain variance or standard deviation from that mean to be normal, but the reaction to deviance is asymmetrical.

An example that comes to mind is that of cheating. It is well documented that humans are predictably cheaters (and liars). Nonetheless, there are two measures of normalcy. There is a fundamental attribution bias in play.

We view ourselves as basically honest and justify occasions when we act the same way. Regarding the chart below, we like to believe that cheating is uncommon. In fact, we chastise or otherwise punish cheaters.

Descriptive versus Prescriptive Normalcy

Full disclosure this is not to scale nor representative of actual data. It’s merely an illustrative tool for conversation.

Prescriptive Normalcy

The bottom range in green represents the accepted and prescribed normal range of cheating. In this example, it might be anticipated that an average person might cheat on things like their taxes, their diets, not returning extra change at a vendor, and so on, about a third of the time, give or take. Anything more would be considered abnormal and unacceptable. Anything less and the person might be considered to be uptight or a goody-two-shoes, perhaps like Ned Flanders of the Simpsons franchise.

Ned Flanders – Hokily Dokily

Descriptive Normalcy

In practice, people operate well outside of this range. As illustrated by the top red range, people tend to cheat closer to two-thirds of the time. If a person is caught cheating, they are treated as being well outside of the prescribed range, society will look upon them harshly despite this actually being normal behaviour for those judging, those who know that they are guilty of the same activity.

One reason for the overreaction may be to signal that they are among the righteous. Here, it’s good to remember Jung’s quip: The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.

The brighter the light, the darker the shadow

Carl Jung

Intelligence Quotient

If I use IQ* for a reference, normal is the mean plus or minus a standard deviation (or sigma [σ]) of 16 points, so between 84 and 116. In the early to mid-20th century, clinical psychology nomenclature grouped IQs by bands:

ClassificationIQ Range
Idiot0 – 24
Imbecile25 – 49
Moron50 – 69
Dull or Borderline70 – 79
Below Average90 – 89
Average90 – 109
Above Average100 – 119
Superior120 – 129
Very Superior130 – 139
Genius140+
Willam Stern Intelligence Quotient Nomenclature

Later moron was replaced by moderate mental retardation or moderate mental subnormality with an IQ of between 35 and 49. As with many things, and in the case of IQ, an observation above the norm is associated as better with an observation below the norm being considered as worse.


* IQ has many problems. At first, an IQ of 100 is supposed to represent the average (mean) of a population, yet the average IQ of the world population is just over 82, a number outside and below the 1σ threshold. In the United States, the average IQ is an unremarkable 97% (ranking 26 among 199 countries). Japan and Taiwan top the list at over 106. In fact, Asian countries comprise the top 6 slots. Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are almost an even 100, falling ever so short. at 99 and change. Guatemala, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nepal fall at the bottom of the ranking, each with average IQs under 50.