“The End of Average” by Todd Rose

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It is not that the average is never useful. Averages have their place. If you’re comparing two different groups of people, like comparing the performance of Chilean pilots with French pilots—as opposed to comparing two individuals from each of those groups—then the average can be useful. But the moment you need a pilot, or a plumber, or a doctor, the moment you need to teach this child or decide whether to hire that employee—the moment you need to make a decision about any individual—the average is useless. Worse than useless, in fact, because it creates the illusion of knowledge, when in fact the average disguises what is most important about an individual.

 

The takeaway from this book? That ‘average’ is a meaningless concept when applied to the individual person or situation. ‘Average’ might be calculable but it doesn’t exist in nature—it’s a comfortable but unrealistic concept. Regardless, most of our scientific understanding has been based around it because in many cases it’s the best we have.

The tragedy is when we fail to measure up to what is considered average. And it’s unavoidable, because NOBODY is exceptional in every regard. To think otherwise is to succumb to outdated thinking. This book calls for a more empathetic and accommodating education system, as well as pointing out ways to be humanized by your unique profile of strengths and weakness instead of dehumanized by feeling obligated to measure up to an imaginary standard. That all sounds goody goody and touchy-feely, but on the contrary, I find this book to be a useful contribution to thinking about the world.

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It is not that the average is never useful. Averages have their place. If you’re comparing two different groups of people, like comparing the performance of Chilean pilots with French pilots—as opposed to comparing two individuals from each of those groups—then the average can be useful. But the moment you need a pilot, or a plumber, or a doctor, the moment you need to teach this child or decide whether to hire that employee—the moment you need to make a decision about any individual—the average is useless. Worse than useless, in fact, because it creates the illusion of knowledge, when in fact the average disguises what is most important about an individual.

Since Quetelet’s new science of the Average Man seemed to impose welcome order on the accelerating jumble of human statistics while simultaneously validating people’s natural urge to stereotype others, it’s little wonder his ideas spread like wildfire. Governments adopted Quetelet’s social physics as a basis for understanding their citizens and crafting social policy. His ideas helped focus political attention on the middle class, since they were perceived to be closest to a nation’s average citizen and, according to Queteletian reasoning, the truest type of Belgian, Frenchman, Englishman, Dutchman, or Prussian.

The Age of Average—a cultural era stretching from Quetelet’s invention of social physics in the 1840s until today—can be characterized by two assumptions unconsciously shared by almost every member of society: Quetelet’s idea of the average man and Galton’s idea of rank. We have all come to believe, like Quetelet, that the average is a reliable index of normality, particularly when it comes to physical health, mental health, personality, and economic status. We have also come to believe that an individual’s rank on narrow metrics of achievement can be used to judge their talent. These two ideas serve as the organizing principles behind our current system of education, the vast majority of hiring practices, and most employee performance evaluation systems worldwide.

Typing and ranking have come to seem so elementary, natural, and right that we are no longer conscious of the fact that every such judgement always erases the individuality of the person being judged.

Our twenty-first century educational system operates exactly as Thorndike intended: from our earliest grades, we are sorted according to how we perform on a standardized education curriculum designed for the average student, with rewards and opportunities doled out to those who exceed the average, and constraints and condescension heaped upon those who lag behind. Contemporary pundits, politicians, and activists continually suggest that our educational system is broken, when in reality the opposite is true. Over the past century, we have perfected our educational system so that it runs like a well-oiled Taylorist machine, squeezing out every possible drop of efficiency in the service of the goal its architecture was originally designed to fulfill: efficiently ranking students in order to assign them to their proper place in society.

Other people’s personalities seem stable to us, however, for a different reason: we tend to interact with most people within a narrow range of contexts. We might know a colleague solely at work, for example—not at home with his family. Or we go out shopping and drinking with a friend on weekends, but never see her in the boardroom. We spend time with our children at home, but rarely see them at school or with their friends. Another reason people’s behavior feels trait-like is that you are a part of their context. Your boss might think you are a timid person when you know that you are only timid around her; at the same time, we might think our boss is overbearing and arrogant, even though she might be only behaving that way around you. We simply do not see the diversity of contexts in the lives of our acquaintances or even those closest to us and, as a result, we make judgments about who they are based on limited information.

Each time we find ourselves thinking someone is neurotic, aggressive, or aloof we should remember that we are only seeing them in that particular context.

 

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