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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