The end of average. Todd Rose. A book review.
I read The end of average by Todd Rose back at the end of December. And then I had to read it again. Because it is good and because it is not trivial. So I thought it makes this book worth writing a review about it.
First I like its level of language, its style. It is accessible to a non-native like me and at the same time precise enough to engage in real thinking. The author strikes the right balance between explanation and simplification.
Second I appreciated the thorough description and historical account of how we got where we are today in Chapter 1, including the people who influenced early 20th century thinking and the logic and assumptions behind their ideas. In 1835 Adolphe Quetelet decided to apply the method of average initiated in astronomy to social science, implying the average is perfection and any deviation from it is an error. Francis Galton following in his footsteps repositioned the average as “mediocre”, above average as “eminent” and below average as “imbecile”; Galton also assumed that if you are below average in one dimension then you are overall below average, and applied the same to above average. This led to labelling groups of people as eminent, mediocre or imbecile, on all dimensions of capability and character.
Along came standardization. Edward Thorndike with school standardization and Taylor with work standardization. I won’t go into too much detail here, a lot is known already, and if standardization and how it came to be triggers your curiosity, I recommend you focus on Chapter 2. Scary and highly interesting at the same time.
Third I learned that the key assumption when studying individuals, that “a group’s distribution could safely be substituted for an individual’s distribution of measurements” is actually wrong (according to a number of scientists and the author) and leads to false results. In simple terms the paradox could be summarized as: how can you understand individuals and ignore their individuality at the same time? Based on the acknowledgment of this mathematical mistake and the paradoxe coming with it the author Todd Rose introduces his key message “individuality matters”, his call to action “first analyse then aggregate”and the 3 highly interesting principles that support it:
– Jaggedness: you can reasonably only aggregate data on traits that are focused enough to be non-multidimensional and not correlated.
– Context: take the traits and put them in situation. Observe the outcome. Repeat at will. You get the whole spectrum and complexity of personality. Taken independently neither trait nor situation are enough to reliably forecast a typical reaction by a given indivdidual.
– Pathways: Todd Rose writes: “first in all aspects of our lives and for any given goal, there are many, equally valid ways to reach the same outcome; and second, the particular pathway that is optimal for you depends on your own individuality”. Pretty straightforward isn’t it? To understand, yes…to live by…well…
This theory is obviously still in its infancy. I find it far from easy to grasp its implications for society, education and work at once. It already exists here and there, and I want to be able recognize this approach when I see it.
I am also not fully clear on how to implement this thinking in everyday life and everyday work. If the advantages are clear for me, what kind of risks come along with it? No theory or approach is perfect, so what am I getting myself into if I want to embrace the principles of jaggedness, context and pathways? And of course analysing great amount of data before aggregating is a computing challenge, how can we solve it at all levels?
My take-away? I will definitely dig deeper, check into the works of Peter Molenaar who inspired the author, maybe read Karen Adolph about infant development. And of course I will be especially aware of the tyranny of average and play my part in caring, designing for individuals rather than averages.
My last words, quoting the author: individuality matters.