Yale Research Confirms What You've Always Suspected: Nobody Is Normal

Jessica Stillman

We're all weirdos, science has confirmed, and that's something to celebrate.

Every day, millions of people around the world ask Google some variation of the question, "Am I normal?" Burdened by shame, we turn to the internet to figure out if our behavior, our bodies, and our deepest emotions mark us as outside the mainstream.

The very fact that so many of us are typing "Is it normal to talk to yourself?" or "How often do couples have sex?" into our browsers late at night suggests that, yes, whatever your quirk, lots of other folks probably have it too. But if search engine data alone seems like a flimsy basis to determine whether or not you're a freak, I have good news for you. Yale research has confirmed it scientifically.

A new review published by two Yale psychologists in Trends in Cognitive Sciences argues that we're all a little bit weird, but being weird is, in fact, totally normal.

There is no such thing as normal.

In order to feel like a weirdo, you have to believe there is such a thing as normal -- a standard or optimal state of being in whatever area you're worried about. Or in other words, for talking to yourself to be strange, it must be true that not talking to yourself is objectively better. And for a question like, "How often do most couples have sex?" to make sense, you need to assume there is a range of sexual behavior that's both common and ideal for all.

The Yale study takes aim at this understanding, revealing the world isn't neatly divided into the healthy or unhealthy, the ideal and the subpar. By analyzing a host of traits -- from the beak shapes of specific bird species to psychological characteristics like our appetite for risk taking -- the authors show that these qualities exist along a continuum, and separating the "normal" from the "weird" is usually impossible.

There are, of course, extreme cases where some characteristic or behavior is clearly unhealthy. If a beak can't crack nuts and the bird is going hungry, the beak is a problem. If your anxiety is so bad you can't leave the house, seek treatment. But for all but the most obvious maladaptations, there is almost always a mix or good and bad results from any given variation.

Take anxiety, for instance. Is it weird and bad if you're more prone to worry than most other people you know? Well, science shows that anxiety is probably keeping you safer, pushing you to be better prepared in important areas of your life, and improving your memory, even if it often doesn't feel good. On net, is that a win or a loss? Or look at risk taking. If you're a little further on the fearless end of the spectrum, your chances of suffering some life-threatening mishap are likely higher, but so are your chances of starting a world-changing company. Our strengths and weaknesses are intimately tied together.

"I would argue that there is no fixed normal," senior author Avram Holmes commented, summing up the findings. There's a level of variability in every one of our behaviors," and "any behavior is neither solely negative or solely positive. There are potential benefits for both, depending on the context you're placed in."

Let your freak flag fly.

That reality is a challenge for clinical psychologists, the research points out, as it greatly complicates the task of deciding what constitutes a mental illness in need of treatment. But for the rest of us anxious, late-night Googlers, it's good news. Barring obvious dysfunction and misery, you are almost certainly way more normal than you think you are. Or to put it differently, you're weird, but so is everyone else, so stop worrying.

That means you should probably be more positive about both your quirks and those of people around you. "We're all striving towards some artificial, archetypal ideal, whether it's physical appearance or youthfulness or intelligence or personality. But we need to recognize the importance of variability, both in ourselves and in the people around us," concludes Holmes.

We're all freaks together. That's something to celebrate.