Nov 11 2009

Environmental Normalization

In Fall 2004, I taught two sections of Math 120 at University of Nevada, Reno.  Before classes began, I spent many hours trying to come up with the fairest and most generous class policy I could possibly conceive, and I took great pride in the fact that it was even more generous than the policies of any school teacher I’ve had.  I gave practice exams for every test.  I posted homework solutions, practice test solutions and test solutions online (typed every one of them with Microsoft Word Equation editor – took about an hour for each one).  I allowed students to retake two of three midterm exams, which caused me to have to make up, grade and post solutions for twice as many tests.  The chair of the math department even criticized my policy for creating way too much extra work for myself and for giving students too much leniency.

Before the first exam, a student asked me to clarify if tests were open book or not.  I said tests were not open book, and I heard groans from a few students.  Those students had taken all my generosity for granted, already redefining my way-too-leniant class policy to be their ground level expectation.  They had normalized their environment.  There were many other examples throughout that semester that overwhelmingly demonstrated how students’ appreciation of going beyond the call of duty only lasts so long.

A customer is shocked that the topping on his food is slightly off-center.

This happens all the time to all of us, and I think it deserves terminology.  I call it environmental normalization.  Practically every time we complain about anything at all, we are doing so through EN.  EN allows me to complain about my cheeseburger if they don’t remember to hold the pickles even though other people are starving all over the world.  Pregnant women normalize their environment when they complain about discomfort during the third trimester, while their next-door neighbor just experienced her third miscarriage and is starting to realize she may never have her own child.

Even if you are not one to complain, you still normalize your environment every time:

  • you throw a few bites of food in the garbage since you’re full and it “isn’t worth saving” (that probably wouldn’t happen if you lived in certain parts of Kenya)
  • you buy anything at Starbucks (for the same reason)
  • eat a meal without fully appreciating the absence of the stomach flu in your system
  • breathe air and drink tap water without fully appreciating how plentiful and free air and water are on this planet
  • go another hour in existence without fully appreciating how your life would be “different” (to say the least!) if the gravitational constant were different by just 1%.  If you don’t know what the gravitational constant is, that’s no excuse!  Environmental normalization does not require knowledge of those things you’re normalizing.

Thinking about this stuff almost makes me feel like a hopeless environment-normalizing pig.  However, I take refuge in knowing that I’d go crazy if I spent every waking moment giving thanks for every single atom and molecule in my environment.  At some point, I must draw a line and decide that a certain amount of EN is a good thing.  If I take my fight with EN too far, I run the risk of not truly experiencing my own environment because I’d be too busy thinking about much worse life could be if a neutron star spontaneously formed in the middle of my living room.

Victims of Others’ Environmental Normalization

We aren’t always the perpetrators of environmental normalization.  Sometimes we’re the victims.  You are a victim of environmental normalization if you:

  • think it’s normal to hear about yet another bombing in your city, and only a week or two later you forget about it because the daily bombings are just one big blur.
  • think the highlight of life itself is playing with a bouncy ball after being held in captivity in a bathroom for years.
  • think it’s “just another day” when you witness a stillborn or the death of a child with brain cancer (see another blog titled And That Was Just Saturday from Gravity Circus).

In these cases, environmental normalization ends up functioning as a coping mechanism to deal with a harsh environment.  Perhaps an even clearer example of this positive coping mechanism would be if you were suddenly paralyzed from the waist down.  The sooner you can normalize the new “environment” (lifestyle), the sooner you again find happiness. EN becomes a crucial thing in these circumstances.

Still, these three bullet points do represent victimhood, because none of the situations above are normal, healthy occurrences for us.  Going too far with environmental normalization in these cases could result in death (in the first example, if you lose your healthy sense of fear), lifelong captivity (in the second example, if you fail to take opportunities to escape because you forget what freedom feels like), or apathy (in the third example, if you stop caring about people altogether).  In those cases, one would not only be a victim of their environment, but also a victim of their own EN (how they responded to their environment).

Victims of Our Own Environmental Normalization

Sometimes we’re not victims of our environment at all:  we are truly 100% pure victims of our own EN. One example might be a spouse who always serves the other spouse.  At first it might seem charitable, but if the services are taken for granted on both sides, conflict will arise if the spouse doing all the serving finally realizes what is happening and speaks up about it.  The served spouse objects to the notion of having better equality.  A very good (exaggerated!) non-spouse example of this would be how George McFly behaves around Biff in the beginning of the movie Back To The Future, catering to even the most absurd of Biff’s whims because he normalizes Biff’s behavior.

Taking things for granted pulls the value of those things “down” to a set point in your mind, while acceptance of bad things pushes the value of those things “up” to that same set point:  the point of normalcy. This is why one cannot say that EN is simply a fancy way of saying “taking things for granted” since taking things for granted represents only half of the realm of the EN spectrum. While the Starbucks and gravitational constant examples demonstrate what could easily be called “taking things for granted,” the bombing and paralysis examples might be called “acceptance”, and they represent approaching the same point from the opposite direction.

Environmental Normalization in Decision Making

There are a couple theories I learned about from Michael Roberto’s audio course, The Art of Critical Decision Making: normalization of deviance and practical drift.

In the 1978 book, Man-Made Disasters, Barry Turner explains that catastrophic failures don’t just suddenly happen – they “incubate” for long periods of time (as in years) in the form of many different actions and decisions. This incubation process would be an example of EN. Diane Vaughan’s book The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA develops this idea further into what she calls “normalization of deviance.” In the context of the Challenger, the anomaly of O-ring erosion over the course of years of shuttle missions eventually became expected and “normal” since nobody was paying attention to how weather affects O-ring erosion. This means that engineers and managers working directly on the Challenger mission were not the only ones to blame for the decision to launch: many before them, even people not working at NASA anymore, must share some of the blame for contributing to the normalization of deviance that facilitated the decision.

Another example of environmental normalization can be found in Scott Snook’s book Friendly Fire: The Accidental Shootdown of U.S. Black Hawks over Northern Iraq, in which he presents his “practical drift” theory. Practical drift is what happens when people in organizations (or in this case, the military) stray from established rules and procedures in order to be more “locally” efficient, and this “drifting” in the name of what seems like common sense and practicality becomes accepted within their group or department. Unfortunately, they might later discover that their limited perspective doesn’t allow them to see what possible unintended consequences could result from this second guessing of established rules and procedure, especially when complex interactions occur among many different groups, departments or even organizations.

There is a study that shows that people rationalize undesirable situations they’re stuck with, but rebel when they think there’s an out. It shows that even when we know something is wrong, we are often willing to use our powers of EN to let go of this sense of right and wrong in order to bring ourselves a little more sanity, because we don’t like to deal with constant internal conflict resulting from thorns of nagging truth in our side. Having said that, this can only go so far. If we start lying to ourselves about huge issues (or if the lies are blatant enough), it becomes unhealthy. Not only do our own internal conflicts start making us bitter, we even make people around us bitter because they know we’re wrong, yet there is nothing they can do or say to change our minds.

As a side note, I’m excited to be able to say that we can add Environmental Normalizers to the list of those who like Emerald Nuts:

  • Electromagnetic Navigators
  • Extinguished Novelists
  • Exercising Newscasters
  • Eavesdropping Nebraskans
  • Elegant Naysayers
  • Evil Navigators
  • Encouraging Norwegians
  • Entangled Nine Year Olds
  • Enormous Neighbors
  • Eerie Namecallers
  • Earmuffed Negotiators
  • Envious Nomads
  • Egomaniacal Normans

(c) 2009 Read Twedt (originally published on Cerebroom)

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  1. So many points in your blog on Environmental Normalization are powerful and eye-opening, and just the simple act of writing them down, researching them, discussing them and defining them gives me hope that we’re doing the best we can to process such a complicated world, mentally, emotionally, socially, politically and economically, and if we don’t start opening up discussions about this subject, we may lose the most precious thing we have as humans and that is our humanity. Thank you Chad, for starting this dialogue as it is greatly needed if we are going to survive as a species and as a planet. It seems like as simple as life may have seemed for the Waltons, no issue was ever ignored or shoved under the rug to fester and parents took greater responsibility, no matter how stressed, to put the health and welfare as well as their accepted responsibility to guide their children into an understanding of what is kindness, consideration, common knowledge and common sense as opposed to allowing the “anything goes” trap of selfish desires regardless of how it breaks down the innate goodness in man.

  1. […] that we “shouldn’t” have to do. It’s just part of the job, and we need to normalize it. […]

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