Danger of math humour and graphs! I promise nothing!

No, seriously, roughly 66% of people fall within the “average” range, on a huge number of measures and are therefore, for all practical purposes, average.

This is a simple truth that seems to have escaped damn near everyone and unfortunately it plays out in a variety of ways in politics, economics and public perception.

Because far too often people use the term “below average” as if it actually means something.

And often it doesn’t.

The different sections are the "standard deviations". For ease of explanation I'm going to divide them into "dark blue" (34.1%), blue (13.6%) and light blue (2.1%).

To understand this you first need to get a mental handle on “normal distribution“, the picture above. Notice how most of the graph (68.2% in this one, on others it may be slightly different) is in the middle? Well, that’s because most people fall within the “normal” range, that’s why it’s the normal range.

Think about height. Sure, there are some short people and some tall people but they are in the minority. Most people are of a medium height, and a medium build, and a medium pretty-much-everything.

Airlines make use of this by making seats that fit the average range because they know that most people (remember: roughly 68%) will fit into them.

The second important part is to see how the graph sharply levels off as you move to the left and the right. It goes 13.6% then 2.1% then 0.1%. This is because the further away from “average” you get the less likely you are to find anything.

Not your average cat. Not by a long shot.

I like to use the analogy of a dart board. Imagine that you’re a skilled, though not exceptional, darts player and you are playing around trying to see how many bullseyes you can get. Since you are fairly skilled at darts most of your darts will land close to the bullseye but some will land outside of it. So a few darts will still hit the board but not hit the bullseye.

But how many darts will completely miss the board and hit the wall? Probably very few, maybe even none. And that’s the point that I’m trying to get across: most things fall within the average range (68%), a few fall outside of it (13.6%) and a tiny number fall far outside of it (0.1%).

This is exactly what our biology intended from the start. Back when you were a mere foetus and your body was building you up it wasn’t trying to make you exceptional, it was trying to make you average because being an exception is usually a bad thing. Someone with an exceptionally large heart usually dies at quite a young age. Someone with exceptionally small veins is prone to strokes and heart attacks. Exceptional doesn’t always mean good. Sometimes it just means unusual.

So most people fall within the average range.

Not your average pickup line, but I bet it works, if you're Einstein.

This seems counter-intuitive though. Most people think that, logically, 50% of people must be below average by definition.

This is true. It is also completely meaningless.

Of course 50% of people are “below average” and in other news the first rule of Tautology Club is the first rule of Tautology Club. Heck, I could go to a beach, draw a line in the sand and say “50% of the world is on this side of the line and 50% is on that side” and the statement would be just as true and just as meaningless.

What most people mean when they say “that guy is below average intelligence” is not “that guy is below the mean intelligence quotient but still within one standard deviation and is thus still of normal intellectual capacity”.

No. What they usually mean is: “that guy is stupid”.

But in order to mean that they would need to say “that guy is sufficiently below average that it has a negative effect on his performance”. But they aren’t saying that. They are just saying that the guy is below average and leaving it there, which is an essentially meaningless statement (as I explained above).

If they want to say that he is so far below average that it is having an impact on his life they would need to be far more specific.

[NOTE: I am not getting into the inherent flaws in intelligence tests, which are many. I’ve touched on it before and I don’t want to get too far off topic]

Stupid racists. Oh, sorry, that was another tautology.

Psychologists have, of course, studied how far below average someone needs to be for it to have a noticeable, negative effect on their performance and as expected it’s roughly 1 standard deviation (remember: standard deviations are the different shades of blue on the graph right at the top).

This means that if you are significantly below average intelligence then you are out of the dark blue zone on the graph (68.2%) and into the blue part and the light blue part on the left side (13.6% and 2.1% respectively).

Naturally, it is also possible to be of significantly above average intelligence too, which would mean you are in the blue sections to the right (13.6% and 2.1% again).

The point is simply this: if you’re the kind of person who complains that “most people are stupid” then you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

Because the truth is that roughly 66% of people are within the range of average intelligence, and only about 15% of people are sufficiently below average that it actually has a negative impact on their performance.

On the other hand all dogs are pretty much dumbasses.

There are multiple reasons why we often get the impression that the human population is filled with stupid people. I don’t have all the answers but here are a few:

1. The Media Effect.
It’s funny to watch people doing dumb shit. So when people do dumb things other people tend to record it and share it. People acting in a completely normal manner is, well, normal. So we don’t talk about it or share it and thus don’t notice it.

2. The Difference Effect.
A lot of the time when someone says that someone else is stupid what they actually mean is that the other person is different, and they don’t like it. People use the word “stupidity” to apply to people who like different political parties, scientific theories, even sports teams.

But most of the time the people aren’t stupid, they are just different from you.

Of course, there are always exceptions... And since the most recent Republican budget is pretty much all about this kind of crap voting Republican is either self-serving or stupid.

3. The Elitist Effect
Ever since ancient Egypt rich people have looked down at the poor people they are oppressing and felt the need to justify the fact that poor people are starving to death while the wealthy are drinking cups of tea worth $13 000.

One of the most popular methods of doing this is the “White Man’s Burden” approach, which is to claim that those being oppressed are just too stupid to look after themselves and thus it is the duty of the more wise/educated/wealthy/pious/civilised people to come over to their country and rape them.

This was the justification that Rome used for their militarist march across Europe etc. It is also the justification used by the English to oppress the Irish etc. and by all of the colonial powers to rationalise their genocidal, kleptomaniacal rampage across two-thirds of the world.

Fact: all colonizations started exactly like this.

And it is used by a metric fuckton of modern political parties for ignoring the needs of the poor in favour of the needs of the rich.

One of the silliest ways in which this plays out is in the phenomenon of middle class arrogance which occurs when middle class people imply that because they are wealthier than poor people they are “better”. Better educated, more moral, more trustworthy, harder-working, you name it.

And as with the other “effects” I’ve listed it’s all pretty silly.

First World Problems. Why is life so hard? Oh wait, it's not.

Anyway, once one has adopted this daft idea confirmation bias ensures that evidence that seems to support it is picked out and highlighted by our flawed ape brains thus giving us the impression that stupidity is rampant and that only “we” are clever.

Add all this to the fact that upwards of 90% of all people believe they are “above average” and it’s easy to see why everyone thinks that everyone else is stupid.

Even though the real truth is that stupidity is actually relatively rare and roughly 66% of people are average.


Not your average cuteness...

[Standard Disclaimer: this post was entirely my own opinion and was not paid for in any way, directly or otherwise, by anyone or anything that stands to gain in any way from the ideas expressed herein.]

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