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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 24-Mar-13


Sunday 24-March-13

The Cult of the Average

If you were asked to set the curriculum for school education in a country, what would you do? How would you decide what should be understood? Or how about if you were working on job descriptions in a company. How do you decide what is 'good work'? What should you look for when recruiting people? Or how about if you are designing and selling products? How do you decide what users and customers will understand? These can be difficult questions and much research is put into answering them.

Psychological and social research suffer from a problem that the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) tend not to experience: people. People are variable. If you ask a person a question on two successive days, they will give you two different answers. Likewise, the same provocation will get a different response. This makes the development of social and psychological science a difficult problem. The laws of science are nice and exact, and often fall neatly into simple equations. Not so people.

Rather worryingly, most social research is determinedly average. Our statistics, in order to report significant results, are designed to eliminate variation and focus on people who do the same sort of thing. Outliers are a nuisance so we use statistics to drown them in the mass (which is what averaging does). Psychological research looks for patterns that can be generalized so we can say 'everyone acts like this'. And this research, because it is about how people behave, then feeds into work from instructional design to company motivation systems.

The capabilities and performance of people varies across a spectrum with a few at the low end, a few higher up and most people in the middle. So if you were working on the questions above, it makes sense to pitch to the majority in the middle. In fact dealing with the minorities is relatively expensive, so if you are interested in efficiency and reducing costs, then it is easier if you can ignore them. And this is what often happens. Schools, for example, pitch mostly at average kids, who of course get average results. Companies look for employees who will conform to strict rules and not think too differently. And society in general is set up to reward average people who do not rock the boat.

And so we end up with what Shaun Achor, in 'The Happiness Advantage' called 'The cult of the average', where outstanding performance and different thinking is rejected in preference for neat similarity to others and conformance to social and company rules.

Yet there is hope. We do also study differences, and companies try to find and develop talented people. Achor works in the field of positive psychology, where there is more focus on those who seem to found the secrets of good living, and figuring out how the rest of us can have a piece of this splendid pie. We can also each of us be vigilant about external and internal forces that lead us to the average.

Being average is accepting one's lot and not finding out just how far we can go and what we can really achieve. Somehow, the latter seems a better, more fulfilling journey.

Your comments

Heh, I'm not sure if you've seen it before and it's a slightly different concept from what you've been talking about but apparently "beauty" is also "average". When you measure a person's features beautiful people actually have "average" dimensions.

 -- Richard Perfect

Dave replies:
Yes, Richard, your right in that beauty is a kind of 'average' and there's a norm for the dimensions and attributes of what is considered attractive (that seems fairly global). What is called 'ugly' is then just a matter of deviation from this.

So how do we cope when the beautiful people make off with other beautiful people (as then tend to do)? It appears that our skill in adaptation means we change our definition of beauty, for example finding that wonky nose characterfully attractive or that we really prefer inner beauty over the skin-deep variety.

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