In ‘The End of Average,’ Cheers for Individual Complexity


March 4, 20B16

Book Review: In ‘The End of Average,’ Cheers for Individual Complexity

All of us want to be normal, yet none of us want to be average.

We march through life measuring ourselves on one scale after another, from developmental markers through standardized tests and employment evaluations, cardiac risk and bone density scores. Not to mention the ready-made clothes that never fit anyone quite right.

Does it have to be that way? Must the tyranny of the group rule us from cradle to grave? Absolutely not, says Todd Rose in a subversive and readable introduction to what has been called the new science of the individual.

Great thinkers from Einstein to Chairman Mao have long wandered this territory, musing on the situation of the little particle in the big crowd. So have a zillion self-help authors, slicking over the complexities with upbeat attitude.

Dr. Rose, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, operates somewhere in the middle of the field: He is not above dwelling on the inspiring story of his own paddle-against-the-current career success, but supplies enough history, biology and social science theory to interest those in no particular need of inspiration.

One suspects that humans have always informally compared themselves with one another. Dr. Rose lays the blame for our modern obsession directly at the feet of Adolphe Quetelet, a 19th-century Belgian mathematician. Quetelet was an early data cruncher, the first to apply statistical tools to large groups of people.

Among his accomplishments was devising the body mass index, a ratio of weight to height that we still use to decide if people are too big or small. For him, the average was the optimal; normal was the best thing any human could ever possibly be.

Not so for one of his intellectual heirs, Francis Galton of Britain, who agreed that averages were excellent tools for understanding individuals. Ultimately, though, he came to the conclusion that the average defined not the optimal but simply the mediocre, a mark to be measured only so that it could be surpassed.

These two incompatible concepts of the norm have endured, a permanent tension defining an era Dr. Rose calls “The Age of Average,” populated by “averagerians” (a term coined in 1864) who rely on group averages to understand individuals and predict individual performance.

“Typing and ranking have come to seem so elementary, natural and right that we are no longer conscious of the fact that every such judgment always erases the individuality of the person being judged,” he writes. And certainly, no matter what the units (I.Q., milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood, years, pounds, grade point average), we have a defined set of expectations for every group-derived metric.

But anyone who works with people can cite case after case in which the standard metrics disappoint. For educators, it’s all those brilliant underachievers (not to mention all those idiots with Harvard diplomas). For doctors, it’s all the outliers who survive dire disease predictors — or even dire diseases — decades beyond expectation.

For human resource personnel, it’s the new hires who satisfy every single one of a dozen standard criteria and yet utterly fail to perform.

For human resource personnel, it’s the new hires who satisfy every single one of a dozen standard criteria and yet utterly fail to perform.

But if we are not averagerians, then who are we? If we choose not to view individuals against a background of their peers, then surely the alternative is pure chaos.

Not at all, Dr. Rose says, and he sets forth a variety of alternate principles. Among them is the not-unfamiliar notion that all human characteristics are multidimensional, not only in specifics but also in time and context. Reducing this mass of data to a single simple variable (as in a “slow” toddler, an “aggressive” teenager, a “prediabetic,” a Harvard graduate) may well result in a set of flawed conclusions. Even human size is “jagged,” well beyond the ability of ready-made clothes in standard sizes to encompass.

In other words, big data may have landed us in the Age of Average, but really enormous data, with many observations of a single person’s biology and behavior taken over time and in different contexts, may yield a far better understanding of that individual than do group norms.

(This premise may remind the reader of the one underlying the nascent discipline of “personalized medicine,” whose proponents suggest that analysis of an individual’s genetic makeup may guide health care decisions far more precisely than big group studies do.)

In life and in health, different pathways may lead to the same end. Here the author’s own trajectory serves as example: He was an egregiously poor high school student who took a circuitous route afterward, came late to college, declined to follow standard academic advice there, and achieved … yes, Harvard.

His success story may smack of pop psychology, but it has parallels in many other contexts. Medical researchers have now identified the wealth of different genetic mutations that can create superficially similar cancers, and experts in child development have tracked the varied pathways normal children may take as they learn to walk and to read.

Dr. Rose spends much of his narrative in the worlds of education and business, offering up examples of schools and companies that have defied the rule of the average, to the benefit of all. His argument will resonate in many other contexts, though: Readers will be moved to examine their own averagerian prejudices, most so ingrained as to be almost invisible, all worthy of review.

The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness By Todd Rose. HarperOne. The New York Times

A version of this review appears in print on February 23, 2016, on page D5 of the New York edition with the headline: Ripping at Our Labels.

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