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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Just Finished Reading: The End of Average – How to Succeed in a World that Values Sameness by Todd Rose (FP: 2015)

Odd as it may seems in these ultra-competitive times the idea of being Average was considered an ideal and as something to aim for. The Average Soldier or Average Student was held up as a Platonic Form and any deviation from the Average was viewed as a fault to be corrected. But it wasn’t long (something less than 50 years) that the much more recognisable view of the Average began to hold sway – that the Average was something to rise above with ‘average’ becoming synonymous with ‘mediocre’. It wasn’t long before tests of all kinds came into use that attempted to rank everyone, in every profession or walk of life, exactly where they fell on the below Average/above Average scale. People began being judged on their deviation from the norm, the Average, but in an apparently more positive way. Deviation below the Average required remedial work or punishment, deviation above the Average rated praise, promotion and admiration. It all seems very logical, rational, and scientific even. Unfortunately, according to this interesting and intriguing little book (a mere 191 pages) it’s all nonsense.

The author starts with two examples which blows the Average idea completely out of the water. There’s the example of a competition run by an American newspaper to find the Average American Housewife using 10-15 measurements from thousands of women. Prizes where offered and expectations were high. The paper expected that most women would cluster around the Average and that the winner would only triumph by the smallest of margins. To everyone’s surprise not one of the women who entered turned out to be Average in all dimensions. To have a winner they fudged the results and then blamed American women for being unhealthy and failing to work hard enough to meet the ideal Average figure. The second example was more telling: When the US Airforce transitioned from props to jets they discovered that the number of accidents, and deaths skyrocketed. No one knew why. The planes themselves had an expectedly low failure rate and the pilots themselves where top class. Suspicion fell on the cockpit which was designed for the Average pilot in the 1930’s/40’s. Could the Average pilot build have changed in 20 years? After much research they discovered that the Average pilot’s dimensions had hardly changed at all. Then one researcher looked at the problem from the other end of the telescope – and discovered that out of the tens of thousands of pilots measured not one, not one actually fitted fully into the Average cockpit. By designing a cockpit to be used by everyone the Airforce had ended up with a cockpit designed for no one. Their solution? Cockpits that could easily be adjusted to fit the pilot – not the other way around. Accidents and deaths dropped off rather dramatically thereafter.

Using these two examples as his core but salting the book with many more (mostly though not exclusively American) the author makes a very strong case that the Average anyone – pilot, housewife, student, worker – simply does not exist and that institutions designed from the ground up to cater for, to produce or to satisfy the Average person does far more harm than good. Schools designed to produce higher than Average ability student’s end up rejecting far more supposedly ‘below’ Average students than they need to, businesses hire applicants with the best SAT scores or GPA whilst largely ignoring talent that simply didn’t flourish in the artificial environment that produced them. Overall talent is wasted, people remain unfulfilled and society as a whole suffers because of a wrong-headed 19th century idea about the distribution of talents in any population.

Whilst not exactly a world changing book, as some of the blurb seemed to be implying, this is very much a book that will change your views on the use (and abuse) of the concept of Average in the context of human beings. You might find yourself questioning easily assimilated ideas (almost always certainly to be wrong) about any groups ‘Average’ behaviour, attitudes or abilities. You’ll find yourself questioning people when they make any pronouncement about just about anything being above or below Average. I’m starting to find myself thinking (and maybe soon enough actually questioning) ‘Just how did you arrive at that figure’. One thing that can most definitely be said for this book is that you’ll never look on the Average human activity in the same way. If such a thing is even possible it has made me even more sceptical of so-called scientific pronouncements of what you, as an individual ‘should’ be doing (or not doing) by comparing your actual experience to the ‘Average’ person you’re being measured against – in anything from weight/age, getting married by a certain age, how many sex partners you ‘should’ have had by now and, my personal favourite (of course) how many books you read in an ‘Average’ year. A short book, an easy read but full of interesting ideas. Definitely more than the Average book….. Highly recommended.      


VV said...

I've always said being normal or average, is highly over-rated. I've never fit any of the "norms." My favorite non-norm used to be my weight. Even when I was skinny as a rail, I was much heavier than I looked because of dense bone and muscle mass. I used to love taking advantage of carnival barkers because they could never get within twenty pounds of my actual weight.

Mudpuddle said...

Not trying to brag, butt I've been saying for fifty years or so that there are as many realities on the planet as there are humans... It goes along with my general Impression that statistics are nonsense... They're used extensively in all disciplines and completely erroneously, as far as I can tell... Except maybe I the hard sciences... Anyway, very intesti g post...

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary.

This sounds fascinating.

I think that this is an important topic. We talks about the concept of average so much. Like many things that we talks about it seems that there are many misconceptions and unknowns involved.

I agree that equating average with something that people should be doing is often harmful and is best discouraged.

CyberKitten said...

@ VV: Yup, me neither - fitting into norms that is. I tried for a while there - you know to at least appear normal and, of course, not really making it enough to get what I supposedly wanted. So I decided one day just to take Bette Midler's advice and just said 'fuck 'em if they can't take a joke' and became (largely) who I was. Sure it's had an impact but at least I'm not going mad pretending to be something I'm not.

@ Mudpuddle: People certainly see things in different ways and carry very individualistic 'maps' of the world in their head - but (I think) the underlying reality, whatever it actually is, exists and is consistent. We do not (most probably) create reality around us.

Statistics can be used/abused to create almost any 'fact' which then can be used to beat you over the head with. So whenever anyone says that you're life story is 'behind the curve' or 'below average' so we need to 'up our game' they're asking for a swift punch in the face.

@ Brian: I think it's a *very* important topic. Things like this are the meat and potatoes of the 'system's' ability to manipulate you into doing things that are often against your best interests. If you're constantly looking over your shoulder at your neighbours 'rank' as well as constantly comparing yourself to some fake 'average' then you're wasting a lot of time, energy and stress on things that don't actually exist and never really mattered.

Much more of this sort of thing to come!