Personality theory has its historical foundations in the study of 'abnormal' personality (Monte, 1999). Is there such a thing as a 'normal' personality, and if so, does its definition rely on what is socially acceptable?
Normality, and the 'normal' personality, is an area that people from psychologists to philosophers find difficult to concisely define. Normality is often used to classify people and objects, and is comparable to the definition that "the word norm means 'an authoritative standard' and correspondingly normal means abiding by such a standard" (Allport, 1971, p.288). Others believe a list of qualities that a 'normal' person should have defines normality. Alexander (1973) criticises this as relying on the belief that one already knows what normal is. However, people may want to add to or take away items upon reading such lists, but overall they find such definitions satisfactory, indicating a certain standard of normality that society at large agrees with. Thus, it can be said that a normal personality does exist, but its definition does not rely on statistical, social or psychiatric standards alone, but a combination of all three.
Many people refer to the statistical mean as the most satisfactory standard of normality, because it expresses the situation as it is, not as it should be (Martin, 1952). By finding the most commonly occurring characteristics in a population and making this the mean, normal people can be defined as those who fall in a statistical range around that mean. The mean does not represent any single individual, and the qualities defined by the mean may not all exist in one person, but it points to what a normal personality should be like.
However, it can be seen that the statistical concept does not completely define normality, as the mean is found "for a particular group at a particular time and place" (Martin, 1952, p.139) and as such, assumes that the population is static, which the constantly changing world is not. Also, the mental states of individuals are not directly quantifiable and so the statistical mean only approximates this mercurial entity. There are unusual qualities to every person if one looks for them, and so a universal mean would imply that there are no normal people in this world (Binder, 1956). But this contradicts the conclusion established before that there is a concept of normality in this world, albeit an unclear one.
This murky standard of normality is, to a certain extent, dictated by the society. Humans classify observations of themselves as normal or abnormal by rating their behaviours on a sliding scale of socially approved conduct. By adhering to society's conventions and morals an individual is allowed to fit it, and through this they learn that survival is linked to having a personal concept of normality that corresponds to that preached by the society around them. This can be considered as adapting to society by supporting the dominant conventions in it (Martin, 1952). It must be noted that one is not adapting to society as a whole but to particular sections of society; more specifically, the parts of society around oneself that has the most bearing on one's personality.
However, there is the risk that someone who is not abnormal is identified as such by their society, or vice versa. For instance, one who claims to have a maladaptive element in their personality that is not evident to the psychiatrist is diagnosed as having a character disorder, not a personality disorder (Walton and Presly, 1973). Thus, the patient may believe themselves abnormal by social standards, but does not actually have a personality disorder. This shows social standards are not the be all and end all definition of normal personality.
The standard of normality of psychiatrists and psychologists in society must be investigated as they often give diagnoses pronouncing individuals as abnormal. Personality theories have always been founded with close regard to the abnormal (Monte, 1999); clinicians have an understanding of normal personality through investigations of the abnormal. Their endeavours benefit modern psychiatry in the form of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - the latest version (DSM-IV) was published in 1994 - which contains more than 200 mental disorders with specific clinical criteria needed for diagnosis. The DSM defines an individual as having abnormal personality if "history and examination discloses that there are overt failures of a lasting and recurrent type in the patient's important personal relationships" (Walton and Presly, 1973, p.260). Thus, it seems a normal personality exists in a person capable of the opposite; that is, maintaining lasting personal relationships.
However, criticism abounds that DSM is guilty of the "outmoded belief that there is a clear demarcation between normal and abnormal personality" (Monte, 1999, p.11), and that personality disorders set out in DSM are only extreme variants of normal personality traits (Widiger and Costa, 1994). This argument claims the old method of studying abnormality to determine normality categorises them as completely different, when in reality they share fundamental links and causes. Another problem with DSM is that it give psychiatrists the freedom to use the criteria, which frequently overlap due to comorbidity, to preferentially diagnose one type of disorder over another. This finding shows that the categorical system is unreliable and allows bias from the individual assessor.
Though not one standard can truly define a normal personality on its own, it is interesting to note that all three can claim a part in forming the current definition for the population. This leads to the idea that all three are connected and can offer proof of the existence of a normal personality. Simply, a psychiatrist deals with people who do not function in their society because their behaviour deviates from that of those around them in some aspects, and this causes them to be unable to form lasting relationships with those they come into contact. But this socially unacceptable behaviour would first have been considered abnormal in light of a rough statistical mean and range, as normal is mostly defined by what an individual believes themselves to be, and those lucky enough to resemble them (Alexander, 1973).
Since normality can be defined, if not explicitly then by standards set by statistical means, social acceptance and psychiatric evaluation, a normal personality does exist. As shown, its definition does have a basis in the perceptions of society, but in its whole can not only rely on this standard. The best definition of a normal personality considers the most commonly occurring degree in the population around it, the behaviours considered acceptable by the social community in question and the observations of medical professionals into this area so that it satisfies the most regarded standards of normality.
Alexander, P. (1973) Normality, Philosophy, 48, 137-151
Allport, G.W. (1971) Personality: Normal and Abnormal, In Personality Theory: A Source Book, eds. H.J. Vetter and B.D. Smith, Appleton Century Crofts, New York
Binder, H. (1956) The Notion of Normality in Psychiatry, Philosophy Today, 1, 132-136
Martin, R.T. (1952) The Notion of Normality, Australian Journal of Psychology,4, 28-39
Monte, C.F. (1999) Beneath the Mask (6th ed.), Harcourt Brace International, pp.10-21
Walton, H.J. & Presly, A.S. (1973) Use of A Category System in the Diagnosis of Abnormal Personality, British Journal of Psychiatry, 122, 259-268
Widiger, T.A. & Costa, P.T. (1994) Personality and Personality Disorders, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103, 78-91