Normal distributions are a family of distributions that have the same general shape. They are symmetric with scores more concentrated in the middle than in the tails. Normal distributions are sometimes described as bell shaped.
Examples of normal distributions are shown to the right. Notice that they differ in how spread out they are. The area under each curve is the same. The height of a normal distribution can be specified mathematically in terms of two parameters: the mean (μ) and the standard deviation (σ).
The normal distribution, also called Gaussian distribution, is an extremely important probability distribution in many fields. It is a family of distributions of the same general form, differing in their location and scale parameters: the mean ("average") and standard deviation ("variability"), respectively. The standard normal distribution is the normal distribution with a mean of zero and a standard deviation of one (the green curves in the plots to the right). It is often called the bell curve because the graph of its probability density resembles a bell.
The normal distribution is a convenient model of quantitative phenomena in the natural and behavioral sciences. A variety of psychological test scores and physical phenomena like photon counts have been found to approximately follow a normal distribution. While the underlying causes of these phenomena are often unknown, the use of the normal distribution can be theoretically justified in situations where many small effects are added together into a score or variable that can be observed. The normal distribution also arises in many areas of statistics: for example, the sampling distribution of the mean is approximately normal, even if the distribution of the population the sample is taken from is not normal. In addition, the normal distribution maximizes information entropy among all distributions with known mean and variance, which makes it the natural choice of underlying distribution for data summarized in terms of sample mean and variance. The normal distribution is the most widely used family of distributions in statistics and many statistical tests are based on the assumption of normality. In probability theory, normal distributions arise as the limiting distributions of several continuous and discrete families of distributions.
The normal distribution was first introduced by Abraham de Moivre in an article in 1734 (reprinted in the second edition of his The Doctrine of Chances, 1738) in the context of approximating certain binomial distributions for large n. His result was extended by Laplace in his book Analytical Theory of Probabilities (1812), and is now called the theorem of de Moivre-Laplace.
Laplace used the normal distribution in the analysis of errors of experiments. The important method of least squares was introduced by Legendre in 1805. Gauss, who claimed to have used the method since 1794, justified it rigorously in 1809 by assuming a normal distribution of the errors.
The name "bell curve" goes back to Jouffret who first used the term "bell surface" in 1872 for a bivariate normal with independent components. The name "normal distribution" was coined independently by Charles S. Peirce, Francis Galton and Wilhelm Lexis around 1875. This terminology is unfortunate, since it reflects and encourages the fallacy that many or all probability distributions are "normal".
That the distribution is called the normal or Gaussian distribution is an instance of Stigler's law of eponymy: "No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer."