30 August 2012

How Average are You?

If anyone wants to truly insult a teenager (s)he should tell that he / she is AVERAGE. But why restrict it only to teenagers… Basically telling anyone that he or she is average is perceived as a bit of an insult… after all most people were brought up being told that they are special… 

Not only that most people were educated into believing that they are not average, they actually believe it at later stages in life. In fact most people believe that they are above average (in scientific language “illusory superiority” or simply “the above average effect”). This means that about 70-90% of people believe that they are above average drivers, are of above average attractiveness, have an above average academic / job performance etc.

From a very logical and mathematical point of view this is absurd. How can 70-90% of people be above average?

Why and How does this effect occur? In brief, it occurs because we have a very basic need to feel good about ourselves. Now really if you knew that you are below average at EVERYTHING… how would you feel?

The “how” of this phenomenon is a bit more interesting. Let’s get one thing clear. People don’t just SAY that they are above average. They actually BELIEVE that they are above average.

The key element in the “above average effect” is the relativeness of the term “average”. First very few people know what the average of a certain variable is. Let’s take “driving ability”. We don’t really know what that is. Moreover, who actually measures it and which is the average. Now let’s take academic / job performance which is a bit more measurable than driving ability. Who actually knows what the exact average is? Moreover, the average of which group? Is it the average of a department, of a firm, of a branch, of the industry?

The origin of the “above average effect” is in the way we infer what the average is. Basically we observe behaviors and characteristics of other around us (here the key is who is around us) and then we infer a value (which is completely subjective).

Here’s an example. Imagine a not so good student called Frank. Frank’s grades are objectively below the class (and year) average. Now think who are Frank’s friends? Most likely Frank’s friends are not exactly the best students in the school… more likely they are in the lower layers of academic performance. When Frank talks to his friends about their school performance, he will learn about his friends’ grades and forms his opinion on “the average” based on what he knows about this friends while ignoring the grades of the best performing students in class. Of course, Frank will think that he’s above average.

Something that happens in addition is the act of actively searching for convenient comparisons and subsequently basing the evaluation of "the average" on this information. For example Frank might ignore the grades of the top students in class because they are "geeks" and "uncool". Then Frank will focus on Jim who got an even lower grade than himself and say something like: "at least I am better than Jim and who cares about those geeks?"...

A similar example was in the previous post when our female shoe-owner said that "I don't have that many shoes! Gloria has more.".

In brief… the “above average effect” has an up-side and a down-side. The upside is that it really helps us to get around without being depressed and taking pills all day long.

The downside is that in some situations we might overestimate our abilities and get into trouble.

Here’s a nice video on “you are not special”… What I liked the most was “Even if you are one in a million, in a world of 7 billion people there are 7000 people just like you”.


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