Is the Bell Curve Wrong? (Or Are We Just Lazy?)

We expect human performance to fall along a bell curve – a few people do exceptionally well, a few people do exceptionally poorly, and and most people fall somewhere in the average range. We assume that outliers are rare and not representative of the normal person.

New research suggests that’s not the case. A study published in February’s Personal Psychology looked at individual achievement across various industries and types of jobs, including the entertainment industry, academia, athletes, and politicians. It found that a small minority of workers contributed a disproportionate amount of total output in each field. Everyone else, it turns out, actually performed below the mathematical average.

This could mean one of two things. The charitable interpretation is that the bell curve only describes situations in which an external control is artificially constraining achievement – no one is allowed to outperform the speed of an assembly line, for instance. So people would fall closer to the average when their abilities were measured – even though a few people would be capable of greater achievement otherwise. If this is true, we need to be asking ourselves what we can do to nurture these “outliers,” who are apparently much more common than we’ve been led to believe.

The other obvious interpretation is a little more cynical. Maybe most people just don’t go out of their way to do exceptionally well if they don’t have to. In which case, the questions we should be asking are “what can we do to encourage everyone else to try harder?” There’s an interesting body of research out there suggesting that emphasizing the wrong kinds of praise can lead many children to believe it’s not worth trying to challenge themselves, and that these attitudes are carried into adulthood. Both sides of this dilemma have profound implications for our current educational system.

Either way, the authors of the study caution readers not to assume that their research says anything about innate human nature. Their findings are purely descriptive – there’s no telling how people might perform in different circumstances.

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


Grace Adams
Grace Adams4 years ago

When I was a child, I hated "opinion" questions, because I was afraid that I might get really upset if I went to the trouble to form my own opinion about something and then somebody in a position of authority over me didn't like my opinion and forced me to give up my opinion and endorse their opinion instead. I ended up converting to Reconstructionist Judaism because I could not forgive Christianity for encouraging my mother in bullying me into going through Christian confirmation. I didn't really have a theological opinion of my own, I just suspected that swearing an oath that I believed in each of the three parts of the Christian trinity, when I found the whole subject too confusing to reach any conclusion was morally wrong.

Gene Bivins
Gene Bivins4 years ago

Jane B., I understand you're angry. I agree with almost everything you say; but you undermine your argument when you exaggerate. Nothing in this whole discussion has ANYTHING to do with Hitler. I'm a man who has also gotten old, as you say. My father flew a B-29 in WWII, and there is no threat here in any way comparable to what happened then.

Jane Barton
Jane Barton4 years ago

"why work hard when everybody is going to get the same?"

Nobody ever got the "same". NOW it's why work HARD when our LEADERS don't WORK, they STEAL from US and on TOP OF THAT, sent our JOBS to CHINA so we CAN'T. This is nothing NEW and it doesn't matter what NAME you put on it, it's the RICH stealing from the POOR, OPPRESSING THE POOR AND THE WEAK. Now it's about We the SANE getting rid of the scammers and thieves at the top (I don't know why but Newt Gingrich always comes to mind). Government POLICY caused ALL our problems. De-Rivatives and De-Regulation took down our economy, it wasn't the WORKERS, it was the 1% (billionaires).
We need to tax the @^# out of the billionaires who CAUSED this. Those MFs are trying to take over the government so they can DEREGULATE even more and STEAL EVEN MORE.
Isn't it obvious?

Billie C.
Billie C4 years ago

why work hard when everybody is going to get the same? everybody should get the same amount of money, everybody should have a house, everybody should have what the hard workers get it's only fair. that's what our co called leaders preach. life is not fair you work for what you want or you do without. until the fools in charge figure out that giving the same pass to all only brings down the top. will we ever get back the spark that made america what it is today? it starts in schools and continues until we die. nobody can be better it's not fair to those who aren't. bunch of bull.

Jane Barton
Jane Barton4 years ago

Statistics are real but it all depends on who is analyzing them. They are faked up NOW and skewed to spread propaganda to ignorant, uneducated idiots. I'm so sick of tag hanging and name calling and my opinions being put in a BOX. I'm not a "progressive", I'm not a "liberal", I'm not a "baby boomer", and I'm not a SLUT as I've been called numerous times by men who don't like my opinions. I'm an American, I'm a female who just happened to get old and it's not MY FAULT, I can THINK, and my uterus is a BULLSHIT DETECTOR. Our government's being run by a bunch of bought off, lying thieves and they are throwing statistics at us calling US lazy. THAT'S what I'm calling BULLSHIT. Our Congress does insider trading that WE go to jail for, teach the American people that it's OK for THEM to steal but not US and then throw a "Bell curve" at us and say get off your lazy @^# and WORK so we can STEAL MORE MONEY FROM YOU. We are all being SCAMMED with
"technical" bullshit. This is the same propaganda Hitler used.

Eric D.
Eric D4 years ago

It's interesting to see how the truthinessers come out of the woodwork after a while.

Statistical analysis "[is] all bullshit". The "Bell Curve is just statistical nonsense".

Facts be damned; the only thing that matters is my opinion uninformed by fact. To quote Stephen Colbert: "It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything."

Tragically, if these individuals are representative of the progressive movement in the US the US is doomed. The right in the US has adopted truthiness as its credo (despite having a rich intellectual tradition) and now you're seeing policy implemented that is uniformed by reality. That the progressives and left in the US are prepared to adopt these same attitudes is shameful because what the means is that anyone with an ounce of reasoning skill will be left to fend for themselves.

Whatever! You make your own bed and you don't fight lies with more lies, however tempting it is in the short term.

PS As for Gene B's comment. Yes, you are correct, an average is a made up construct, but, so is speech. As for the technically part--an average is a measure of the central tendency of a set of data. Generally data cluster around a central point.

That said, there are MANY measures of central tendency and just to add confusion they're all called AVERAGE by the layperson. Arithmetic mean, median and mode are the ones you are most

Jane Barton
Jane Barton4 years ago

"what passes for valid statistical analysis?"

Nothing. It's all bullshit.

Gene Bivins
Gene Bivins4 years ago

A statistical average is a made-up construct. Taking all the figures relating to the members of a test-group into account, it's possible to reach an average for which there is no example in the group.

Eric D.
Eric D4 years ago

@Ian... just because you don't understand statistics doesn't mean they're worthless. What is worthless is poorly done statistical analysis and then having people eat it up hook, line and sinker.

What I wonder is this: if a tool like the bell curve (NOT Bell--if you feel compelled to capitalize a word you can use Gaussian distribution) is nonsense, what passes for valid statistical analysis?

Without statistics you have anecdote, and, frankly, anecdote is about as worthless as a Tea Partier's commitment to make decisions based on fact.

But, I digress. Why waste energy responding to someone who values truthiness over fact?

Ian Fletcher
Ian Fletcher4 years ago

The Bell Curve is just statistical nonsense nobody can take personally. It's a proven fact that it is meaningless. History has proven that long ago. Winston Churchill, for example, was declared a dunce by one of his teachers. Let's imagine The teacher made a statistical analysis of his/her pupils and handed it around as if it had a trace of credibility.
.. Pompous crap!