The Difficulty of Knowing What “Average” Is

When people are asked how their abilities stack up against others’, psychologists have noticed a pattern: people tend to rate themselves as above average. Even though, of course, not everyone can be better than average.

There are two ways of looking at this phenomenon. One is that people tend to inflate their views of themselves and overestimate their own abilities. The other is that people might underestimate the abilities of others – that is, they see themselves as above average because they have a skewed sense of what “average” is.

Recently, a group of researchers from Yonsei University in South Korea and the Chinese University of Hong Kong decided to explore how people estimate what “average” is, and how people’s estimations of average influence their ratings of their own abilities.

In their study, the researchers surveyed a group of 288 male college students from the United States. The students were asked about how their different academic abilities compared with the abilities of an “average” student, a “typical” student, and an actual student who was in either the 40th, 50th or 60th percentile. From these numbers, the researchers inferred what students considered to be average.

What the researchers found was that generally, certain academic skills were perceived as “easy” and others as “hard,” which in turn influenced how students guessed what was average.

For example, language-related skills like writing were perceived as “easy” overall (which, as a writer, I take offense to, by the way!). Science and math were thought of as “moderately hard,” and artistic pursuits like acting and music were seen as very hard indeed.

Moreover, whether a given area was considered difficult affected what students saw as the “average” skillset in that discipline.

For skills that were seen as easy, students consistently underestimated the competence of the average student. Besides writing, “easy” skills included interpersonal skills like getting along with people.

When it came to skills perceived as more difficult, though, the participants had a more realistic idea of what was average, and sometimes they even overestimated the abilities of the average student!

What this meant was that the “better-than-average” effect held up in some areas but not others. When it came to the “easy” linguistic and interpersonal skills, the people in the study did tend to rate themselves as above average. In more intimidating domains, though, this tendency evaporated.

In other words, it looks like people’s tendency to rate themselves somewhat leniently may be specific to certain skillsets. And it may be that it’s not just a matter of people having an inflated view of themselves, but also having a hard time sorting out what’s average – after all, if you don’t know what’s “normal,” it’s hard to say how your own abilities line up!

Image: Flickr/Abhijit Bhaduri