Paying attention to norms is how we stay in step with social expectations, says Dustin Wood, an assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, who is interested in how personalities develop. "Normality is the barometer people use to figure out if they're acting the way they should be."
In probing the common standards of normality, Wood has made a surprising discovery: Being normal is actually extraordinary. It's an unusual combination of specific traits that all have to do with being extra likable. The people who see themselves as most normal (and are seen that way by others) are much less neurotic than the average person, uncommonly easy to get along with, unusually respectful of propriety, and highly responsible.
Normal people may be nicer than average, but they also have character traits that aren't universally appealing. They're not adventurous. They're not above average in intelligence, nor are they outgoing. Truth be told, a lot of our best qualities are unusual. A sense for music like Mozart's is certainly exceptional. So is the ability to speak six languages, or the courage to leap onto the subway tracks to save a stranger's life.
Wood has found that monitoring normal behavior is one of the important ways we continue to grow and mature. But off-key qualities often have their own reason for being. They can even have unexpected upsides. Besides, they're what make us endlessly fascinating—and essentially human.
The Slacker's Lament:
I have no ambition.
Tom Hodgkinson has made his name and his reputation—one might even say his career—as a layabout. Fifteen years ago, he launched the magazine The Idler. Its inspiring manifesto: "To return dignity to the art of loafing, to make idling something to aspire towards rather than to reject." His latest book, The Freedom Manifesto, combines tips on how to throw off the chains of hard work with anecdotes about the Merrie Olde England of yore, where lounging, making music, and dancing were most people's highest aspirations.
True to his cause, Hodgkinson doesn't have a job. He works at home, reading and writing, but only until about 1 p.m. The rest of the day? "I try to do some gardening, or have a nap," he says. "The children come home from school at about four, and then in the evening it's reading, or talking."
Our striver-obsessed society looks down on those who just float along without a master plan. And laziness often masks something more troubling: depression, frustration, or a lack of self-efficacy. Some people who appear to be listless or unmotivated actually don't believe they can accomplish anything or find it hard to take action because they are suffering from clinical depression. Ironically, perfectionists can also appear to be lazy, because their fear of failure prevents them from taking on important projects.
But many slackers may possess confidence and wherewithal aplenty; they're just lacking in conscientiousness—the will to succeed and the stick-to-it-iveness that is associated with career success. This subcategory of lazy people is merely laid-back, and while they might not feel too happy in Manhattan, they'd be right at home in the Florida Keys.
Hodgkinson's little secret is that he is actually not lazy. He cares for his chickens, putters around in the vegetable garden, practices the ukulele. "It looks like laziness, because it's a rejection of conventional ways of working, but it's more about finding work that is creative, self-directed, under your own control," he says.
This philosophy of life is closely related to the concept of "intrinsic motivation," or an internal drive. Researchers who study happiness have found that organizing your life around intrinsic aspirations—often goals such as fostering community, connecting to family, or creative engagement—tends to make people happier. Extrinsic goals such as professional success, wealth, and fame do not.
It's significant that Hodgkinson has voluntarily chosen this path, says Richard Koestner, a psychologist who studies motivation at McGill University in Montreal. "The critical issue is whether a given behavior is self-endorsed rather than pressured and compelled," he says, adding that a person who has chosen not to pursue very many goals may be quite content if that decision reflects his core personality and values.
The Dead Zone
I have a morbid sense of humor.
Unpredictable violence, political instability, and civil war: It would seem there are few places in the world less funny than Iraq. But that doesn't stop Iraqis from cracking jokes about it. Iraqi April Fool's Day—locally known as "April Lie"—is an occasion for enthusiastic pranks, some of which are truly macabre: This year a student convinced his classmates that their poetry teacher had been assassinated and a woman fooled her husband's family into thinking he had been arrested and detained by the Americans.
It seems ghoulish, but joking about danger and death in some circumstances is a crucial coping mechanism, not a sign of mental instability. Doctors and emergency medical technicians are famous for gallows humor. Paramedics who tell morbid jokes have lower stress and less burnout than those who don't, one study found. It's never been studied rigorously, so it's hard to know exactly how this kind of humor functions, but "having a laugh in the face of death or extreme hardship can certainly have a place in healthy coping," says Tyler Stillman, a social psychologist at Florida State University. "Humor allows people to detach from extremely trying circumstances and attach to other people to get through difficult times." Stillman has found that it's often prompted by situations in which we seek social support—including wars and other catastrophes.
Anyone whose life circumstances or job description puts them in close touch with mortality may develop a particularly morbid sense of humor as a way to decompress: Megan Wolff, a doctoral student in the history of public health, says that she and her colleagues often swap stories about their favorite disasters—how many died and whether their deaths were shockingly quick or horrifyingly slow. "Everybody will always name their favorite disaster right off the bat, and they're pretty chipper about it," she says. "My colleague is hugely excited about a flood in which thousands were killed. I'm excited about the Spanish Flu."
Wolff also leads historical tours of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, telling the stories of immigrants who lived in the famous 19th-century urban ghetto. Her audiences are especially fascinated by details of the filth and disease that were facts of life back then—the outhouses built for eight that served dozens or hundreds, the surgeries that took place on kitchen tables. Pigs served as the Sanitation Department—not a bad strategy, except that when their garbage supply ran out, they'd go after small children.
"When you start talking about something gruesome, you can get people who otherwise don't care to pay attention," she says. "It's the details that make you shudder that also make you laugh."
Not Tonight, Dear—or Ever
I'm not into sex.
A dearth of carnal urges is a common side effect of our sleep-deprived nights and frenzied days. But for some, not wanting sex is a permanent state of being. Cijay Morgan, a 46-year-old Canadian teacher of English as a foreign language, is one of a small number of people who describe themselves as "asexual." She has never been interested in sex. "I didn't really think about it until all of my friends started becoming sexually aware," she says. In adolescence, it became clear to her that she was fundamentally different.
Many unhappy couples struggle with low sexual desire in their relationships, but their frustration stems from the fact that they remember—and miss—their intense physical attraction. Other people have traumatic experiences such as abuse or rape that make them wary. Morgan is not afraid of sex, and she doesn't miss it, either. She has romantic feelings for others that don't morph into lust. "I think about the person a lot," is how she describes it. "I think how nice it would be to take a trip with them or just walk while holding hands and enjoying each other's company."
Her situation is not common: One comprehensive survey found that only about 1 percent of the population has never felt any sexual attraction toward another person. But while asexuals are certainly outliers, they don't necessarily have a problem unless they see it that way, suggests Irwin Goldstein, M.D., founder of San Diego Sexual Medicine, an interdisciplinary sexual health clinic. In his work, social and psychological expectations are just as important as physical responses. He describes a patient he's just started treating who grew up in a conservative family in the Middle East. During her first marriage, this woman never wanted sex, but didn't worry about it—she believed that women weren't supposed to enjoy the act. When she remarried in middle age, though, her new husband wanted to please her. At age 49, for the first time in her life, her lack of sex drive felt like a problem, and she contacted Goldstein. "Nothing's different about this at all except a new husband, and a new understanding," he says.
Anthony Bogaert, a researcher in the departments of psychology and community health sciences at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, is one of the few researchers to systematically study asexuals. He suspects that prenatal conditions may account for their different sexual development, just as many researchers believe is true of gays. But, he says, that doesn't mean they need fixing. "If the person has the capacity to form romantic relations with individuals and does so, or if she or he doesn't form romantic relationships but is content," then nothing's really wrong.
Morgan says she's happy the way she is, although it's been difficult to convince others that she doesn't want to change. "Just about everyone worried more about my being 'alone' than I ever did." She has a close family and many friends. "I'm a very affectionate person. I'm surrounded by love."
Quirky, Kinky, or Creepy?
I have unusual sexual fantasies.
In our let-it-all-hang-out culture, kinks are portrayed as cool, not embarrassing. Self-proclaimed party girl Tila Tequila of the MTV reality show A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila is just one of many proud pervs on TV. A glance at Craigslist reveals endless pleas from horndogs, whether married men looking for she-males or young professional women who yearn to be spanked.
Surveys must be read with skepticism, since people are notorious for lying about their experiences, but one international poll found that 20 percent of adults say they've experimented with masks, blindfolds, or other bondage gear and 35 percent have tried anal sex. Yet most of us harbor strong and decidedly subjective ideas about what's simply kinky and what's truly creepy.
A practice that is harmful, exploitative, or dangerous—such as pedophilia or public flashing—is deemed abnormal. But outside such clearly damaging obsessions, human-sexuality experts have a general rule: Unusual sexual practices are mostly harmless as long as they are part of a range of sexual responses. If you like dirty talk or get aroused by women's underwear, that's nothing to worry about unless it's the only thing that turns you on.
Then it's usually called a paraphilia, defined as unconventional sexual behavior that's both obsessive and compulsive. For instance: A guy who can get off only when he's wearing diapers, or a woman who insists on dominating her partner. The person "is now substituting a behavior for a partner, and the behavior has become necessary for sexual satisfaction," sex educator and author Yvonne Fulbright explains.
A little bit of kink is a good thing if it spurs open-mindedness and a spirit of adventure. But when an object or a ritual becomes more important than the living, breathing partner, it gets in the way of a relationship and of sexual fulfillment.
The predilection doesn't have to be weird to cause a problem. Fulbright says that increasingly, she hears from heterosexual guys who have trouble getting aroused unless they look at or imitate porn. At first, their counseling regimen is not very much fun: "It's almost like quitting smoking," she says. They have to slowly get used to new (non-porn-related) practices over time, while tolerating unpleasant feelings akin to psychological withdrawal.
But over time it becomes easier for them to respond to a wider repertoire of sexual situations. "It's a matter of allowing variety in and keeping a sense of exploration," she says. "Otherwise sex becomes very selfish."
An Infinite Loop
I've got a torturous secret.
A lot of innocent-looking people are hiding impressive peccadilloes: drug addictions, health problems, financial troubles, infidelity. We even keep secrets from those closest to us: More than 70 percent of married men and women keep stashes of money that a partner doesn't know about, one poll found. Secrets like these may be ordinary, but they often take on a terrifying influence that grows stronger as you put more effort into hiding them.
The simple act of concealing the truth bestows a lot of emotional power on a secret. Even small, trivial falsehoods or omissions begin to loom large as you struggle to keep them under wraps. You become obsessed, and your shame fuels your obsession.
The holder of a shameful secret fights irresistible urges to confess, as Frank Warren of postsecret.com might attest. As part of an art project, Warren began encouraging strangers to write their darkest thoughts on hand-made postcards and mail them in anonymously. Since 2004, more than 200,000 people have responded. Each week, a new set of postcards goes up on the site, with confessions ranging from the poignant to the hilarious. "I don't love you anymore." "I didn't tell my wife our son was injured in Iraq." "I'm 27 years old, and I'm a virgin."
The effort of keeping a secret actually prompts you to think about it more, psychologist Daniel Wegner of Harvard University has found. Part of your brain is constantly monitoring it, trying to make sure you don't blurt it out. This screening process unintentionally keeps the subject alive in your memory. Intrusive thoughts about it pop up, distracting and alarming you, and making whatever you are hiding seem much bigger and more twisted than it is. In his research, simply forbidding a subject from thinking about a white bear can make it extremely difficult to stop thinking about the pesky thing. "If there's a general rule, it's that when you keep a secret, it's going to be something you'll think about a lot," he says.
"That's why hidden love affairs become so potent," Wegner adds. "The attraction is magnified by the effort of keeping it secret." Confessing can weaken the sway, he notes. And for those sins that are just too big to admit to face-to-face, there's always postsecret.com. You might find that someone else is carrying the same burden as you—and suddenly, it will seem a little less horrifying and a little more human.
Solitude is Bliss
I like to be alone.
Thanks to guys like Ted Kaczynski and Seung-Hui Cho, modern loners have a bad reputation as misfits and misanthropes. It is true that some of the worst murder sprees have been committed by social outcasts. But a solitary gunman usually winds up that way because he is so deranged—or so difficult—that he cannot find a niche in normal social life. His vengeance is fueled by rejection. He wants to fit in, but he can't.
Solitude by choice is a completely different matter. Some people are natural introverts who simply crave peace and time to themselves, like Evelyn Strand*, a consultant to international nonprofits. Every month, she jets off to places like Afghanistan or Sweden, where she spends weeks networking with strangers. The success of her projects often depends on having strong, mutually trusting relationships with local government officials, and she is very good at inspiring people and winning their respect.
When her work is done, though, all she wants to do is kick back at home with her husband and her cats. She moved to her current town more than a year ago, but hasn't made any local friends. "I seek the company of very few people," she says. "Sometimes I really don't want to talk to anyone at all." She is what Jonathan Cheek, a psychologist at Wellesley College who has cataloged varieties of shyness, would describe as a nonanxious introvert: She likes people—and they like her—but only in small doses. "If you're mentally exhausted, talking to people requires energy," Strand says. "I enjoy it, but it's an expenditure."
Though content to be lost in her own world, the loner-by-choice is often made to feel like a weirdo by others who crave social interaction and can't imagine that she wouldn't benefit from getting dragged along to a party or baseball game.
Fearing social events rather than loathing them can set people back, if shyness prevents them from having fulfilling relationships or acts as a barrier to creative or professional achievement. Some types of shyness are even associated with depression. But some—Cheek calls them the "secure shy"—have figured out how to have good relationships in spite of their social anxiety. They don't have a lot of friends, but they also may not need a lot of friends. Just as with nonanxious introverts, the secure shy don't seem to be very limited by the trait, says Cheek. "Not everybody's a people-person."
I love one child more than the other.
People strive to be fair, just, and equitable with each of their children. But in their heart of hearts, many parents harbor stronger feelings for one of their offspring than for the others. And they feel terrible about it—even though family psychologists say it doesn't necessarily pose problems.
Christina Martin*, a 29-year-old Virginia mother, had a happy family with two biological daughters and a stepson, all of whom she loved equally—even the boy who wasn't biologically hers. So when she found out she was pregnant with a fourth, she was dismayed. Three was plenty.
She was even more surprised, after the baby was born, to find she felt a special connection to her littlest. That child, now 2 years old, is secretly her favorite. "I don't think I got excited about her until she was born," Martin says now. "But I feel a stronger bond with her than with any of my others." Martin thinks maybe it was her residual guilt over not wanting to be pregnant that sparked the connection and ironically brought them closer. She feels very guilty about it, and says she'd never admit it to anyone she knows.
Research with older mothers and adult children, however, suggests that feeling a stronger bond with one child is the rule rather than the exception. In a study, a whopping 80 percent of moms over 65 said they have a favorite among their grown children. Sometimes a child who has physical or emotional difficulties will be the favored one; mothers also often prefer the youngest.
In this research, the adult children were often wrong when they guessed who their mother's favorite was. However, in work by New York University sociologist Dalton Conley, adult children nearly always agreed that one child among the family was favored, and generally agreed on who it was, although parents usually denied it. "It's happening all the time, but people don't want to acknowledge it," he says. "There is such a strong taboo against treating your kids differently."
Most of the research into "parental differential treatment," as it's called, suggests that as long as the children perceive the unequal treatment as nonetheless fair, it won't damage familial relationships. Kids understand that their brothers and sisters have different needs, especially at different times in their lives. So family psychologists encourage parents to explain why they might offer one child more support, or give one more freedom—even though it's the last thing most parents want to discuss.
* Name has been changed