The Cult Of The Average

Why is it, as people and as a society, do we study average so much?

In every scientific report you see, it will always be something about “the average person.”

“The average person wakes up at this time.”

“The average person sleeps this many hours.”

“The average person reads this many books.”

This is one of the very first things that students will learn in introduction to psychology, statistics, and economics classes, which is that, professionals in these fields are only really interested in general trends.

Most people, including scientists and psychologists, constantly and even consciously ignore outliers, mainly because outliers tend to mess things up by not fitting into the general pattern.

In the book “The Happiness Advantage,” Shawn Achor says,

“The typical approach to understanding human behavior has always been to look for the average behavior or outcome. But in my view this misguided approach has created what I call the “cult of the average” in behavioral sciences. If someone asks a question such as “How fast can a child learn how to read in a classroom? Science changes the question to “How fast does the average child learn to read in the classroom?” We then ignore the children who read faster or slower, and tailor the classroom toward the “average” child. This is what Tal Ben-Shahar calls “the error of the average.”

This is the problem of studying average, which is that if you study average, you will become average.

Instead, you personally should do the opposite. Instead of ignoring the outliers, you should study them so that you can learn what they do differently from the average person.

Make it an effort in your life to study the most successful people in the world. As well as the happiest people and the healthiest people.

Don’t focus on what the average person does. Instead, always ask yourself, what do the exceptional people do differently?

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19 thoughts on “The Cult Of The Average

  1. There’s a reason for the average and it is science. The price for understanding the mechanism underlying human existence is creating a flat model. So it’s not “bad” and if everyone could be an outlier they’ll just create a new average.
    So your idea is really good, and I totally vote for aiming at outliers as a person, but as a scientist “average” is the blood sacrifice we need to get into the core of reality. Of course my collegues sometimes use this as a totalitarian perspective and that’s the worse. I love your post. I speak a lot with my groups about the danger of mediocrity so I appreciate your point of view. 👍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Luca! Thank you for your great comment! So the example the quote I use gives is an education example. So what are your thoughts about applying general trends to areas like education because the reality in education is that all kids are not the same, even though there may be an average?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Vincent, thank you so much for taking time to reply to me! About education it’s the same that in other fields, there are two layers: the studies of reality, which relies on numbers average, and the de-ductive application of the studies to reality. Numbers explains why we’re alike or different by a unique language which is different from psy, soc, edu etc… so its meaning can be applied to understand human being (or other fields, we’re talking humans now). Taking for example the single student. We can use the overlapping sets as an image to understand this. A student overlaps a good part of his psychology, needs, cognitive functions, motivation cores etc.. to the others, that’s what science explain. The % is big as we share quite every single part of our physical, psychological and spiritual core. We’re all humans, and good thing about average is that there is that all variables that in normal culture can have “moral” values, like race, age, economic wealth etc… are just numbers, so they’re important to explain, but not to judge. When education focuses on the average it can pre-pare education to reach the bigger part of the human potential inside every student at once. This way the de-duct from the average what it could be better for the most of the students.
        For the part of the student who doesn’t overlap with “average” there are the teachers which have to provide the adaptation between the education model and the specific situation. This way every student can be faced and nurtured the best way for him without forgetting it’s part of something bigger than him/her (the average), and at the same time he/she is unique in his/her way.
        But that uniqueness in science will alway be an average of another focus of research. So there’ll always be the science part which will speack through “average”, but then the people who aplly that science has to transform it into something specific to adapt it to the situation. It’s of course an optimization for costs, and resources to reduce to average the output thought for education, but we should always remember that we are humans too, and our nature must be respected. For instance in Europe where I live, in some countries they’re usinge average as the only focus to create education, that will create robots. A good way to educate a student is to create a good way for him/her to be adaptive to average, but giving space to teachers, schools etc to create variations to adapt themselves too to the student. That’s why I think for now (and I hope forever) they will use human teachers instead of creating an informatic way to create education.
        Sorry for my english I’m trying to improve it, if something is unclear just let me know! 🙂 Did I answer your question? What do you think about it?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Your English is great, don’t worry. Thank you as well for taking the time to explain your position on this. I can understand your point of view:) I have to think about it, but what you said makes sense to me. I really appreciate your perspective on this topic a lot:)

        Liked by 1 person

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