In the last few months we have experienced an emotional roller coaster. First the lockdown uprooted all our routines and later the new outbreaks plunged us into a “new normality” marked by restlessness, uncertainty and social distancing to which we are not quite used to.
This unprecedented crisis not only forced us to face unthinkable situations that shattered our habits, but is also forcing us to rethink what we consider “normal.” Submerged in that delicate process of recalibration and losing the cardinal points that until now had guided us, we must be very careful with the behaviors, ways of thinking and attitudes that we normalize.
From the ideal to the frequent: How do we build normality?
We are generally reluctant to accept changes in our routines. Resistance to change forces us to stay in our comfort zone. However, that tendency will largely depend on how our brain normalizes the behaviors and circumstances that we live in.
If we consider that something is “normal”, even if it implies a change, we will be more willing to accept it as part of our life. The “problem” is that the concept of normality can vary extraordinarily, especially in extreme circumstances or those marked by great uncertainty.
Normal thing is what is frequent, what the majority of the people around us do, think and feel. At the beginning of the pandemic, seeing people with masks was rare. Now it has become more common and weird is seeing someone without them. When a phenomenon spreads, we end up assuming it as normal.
In fact, we all have a kind of “radar” that allows us to detect what is normal. That radar helps us avoid the abnormal behaviors, so we can better fit into society avoiding being rejected or marginalized. It also helps us feel better about the decisions we make since in many cases normality serves as a justification behind which we can hide.
However, a study developed at Yale University revealed that normal is not just what’s frequent. Our concept of normality is not a mere statistic. These psychologists concluded that “People’s representations of what is normal are influenced both by what they believe to be descriptively average and by what they think is prescriptively ideal.”
This means that “normality” is a combination of statistical and moral notions, it goes beyond what’s common to include what we consider ideal. Therefore, normality implies two different forms of reasoning: on the one hand, we verify how things are around us and, on the other, we think about how they should be.
It is precisely that moral component that is projected into the future that sometimes prevents us from accepting a certain “normality”. However, this component is not bomb-proof, but tends to be much more fragile than we suppose and disengages with relative ease in uncertain times, getting dangerously close to the yields of the crust of civilization, through which we can rush if we take some wrong step, paraphrasing Zygmunt Bauman.
Plunged into a state of constant normalization
At the individual and cultural level we develop a series of reference points, a kind of “mental markers” we use to evaluate normality in our lives. These points, however, are moving according to what we see around us, in our communities.
In the midst of this pandemic, many of our landmarks have been unpinned in unison. The rituals and habits that helped us establish emotionally and mentally those reference points have changed, so many of the old customs are no longer valid to face this “new normality”.
In a way, we have all been forced into a new, strange and almost surreal world that just a year ago we would not have even imagined. That creates difficulties to many, challenging their traditional benchmarks. In fact, our reality is changing daily, moving at the rate set by the contagion curve, so that we are mired in a constant state of normalization.
Unfortunately, all people do not have the necessary tools to deal assertively with the unpredictability that has come into our lives and that has generated a true psychological tsunami. That means the “new normality” we are building right now could be the “new abnormality” of how we grieve, drift away, or become more intolerant.
Exalted, extremist and uncompromising behaviors that in normal times would be condemned, in uncertain times can flourish, becoming more and more frequent. When uncertainty reigns, many seek refuge in “pseudo-truths” that give them security, regardless of whether they are true or not.
That is why authoritarian drifts, intolerant attitudes and prohibitions appear often accompanied by diffident or aggressive responses, an explosive cocktail that not only inhibits dialogue but also any form of reasoning.
As a result, we can begin to see those behaviors and attitudes as more normal. By excusing them and labeling them as less negative, they generate less outrage, until they end up generalized and becoming the “new normality.”
But the “new normality” was not this. The new normality was a commitment to do things better. A greater sense of responsibility. In difficult conditions, and more vulnerable, but also betting on the common good. With more empathy, intelligence and awareness.
So now more than ever, we need to understand that whatever we do to compensate for our old routines or ways of thinking will become that “new normality”, perhaps one that we will carry on for a long time. And we must be careful because what has entered our consciousness has the power to normalize itself – for better or for worse.
Bear, A. & Knobe, J. (2017) Normality: Part descriptive, part prescriptive. Cognition; 167: 25-37.
Epstude, K. & Roese, N. J. (2008) The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking. Pers Soc Psychol Rev; 12(2): 168–192.
Murphy, C. (2020) How our brains rationalize “normal”. In: Dame Magazine.