Average (part 1)

In my readings I came across an interesting study that made me think and dig for more: In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman references a study in which the subjects were asked two questions: “Are you a good driver? Are you better than average as a driver?”[1] The respondents typically answered ‘yes’ to both, rating themselves as good, above average drivers. Here’s the dilemma: by definition ‘average’ is a place with 50% above it and 50% below it. When I dug some more, a similar study performed in 1981 completed in Sweden and the U.S. asked respondents to compare their driving safety and skills to others partaking in the experiment. The numbers are surprising: for driving skill 93% of U.S. subjects rated themselves as above average, while 69% of the Swedish group claimed their driving skills to be above average. When it came to safety, 88% of U.S. and 77% of Swedish respondents thought they were above average.[2] This effect is not only limited to driving skills. As humans we tend to ‘overrate’ many of our skills—there’s actually a term for it: it’s called ‘illusory superiority’.[3]


In one of my appointments with my Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician the topic of my return to residency came up. It was clear that I would have to see less patients throughout a day than average.[4] He made the statement, “So what? You’ll see fewer patients; you’ll be below average. I do too, who cares?” This made me think about being considered average, and what that meant.

In the English language there are some words that have an inherent positive or negative connotation to them: words like relaxed and cripple to name a couple. The term average is one of these terms. “How was the movie?” someone may ask you; if you respond by saying, “average,” you don’t mean of all the movies you’ve seen, ½ were better and ½ were worse than this movie. Because of the negative connotation of the word, you mean the movie was pretty bad (I’m guessing you would not recommend an ‘average’ movie to a friend). That notion made me think about what this tumor has done to some of my abilities. I’ve always thought of myself as an honest self-assessor, but like everyone else I must suffer from this ‘illusory superiority’ complex. Regardless of my bias, I thought it was an important exercise to complete…

[1]Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. 2011, New York, p.260

[2] Svenson, O. (February 1981). “Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers?”. Acta Psychologica 47 (2): 143–148.

[3] Colvin, C. Randall; Jack Block; David C. Funder (1995). “Overly Positive Self-Evaluations and Personality: Negative Implications for Mental Health”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) 68 (6): 1152–1162.

[4] In medicine, many times your proficiency is based on your efficiency (i.e. the number of patients you can see in a day). There is a local Family Physician that sees about 60 patients a day! Not only is this an almost obscene figure, but apparently he is loved by his patients.

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