Average is Over

George Bush was relentlessly mocked for saying he wanted the schools to ensure that every kid is above average. It was a stupid thing to say, but people understood what he meant by it. The stupid part is thinking schools can fix what nature has crafted between the ears of school children. No one likes to hear that of course. Then again, maybe Bush was right and everyone can be above average. Most of us think we’re above average, according to this story in the National Journal.

Forget being smarter than a fifth-grader. Most Americans think they’re smarter than everyone else in the country.

Fifty-five percent of Americans think that they are smarter than the average American, according to a new survey by YouGov, a research organization that uses online polling. In other words, as YouGov cleverly points out, the average American thinks that he or she is smarter than the average American.

A humble 34 percent of citizens say they are about as smart as everyone else, while a dispirited 4 percent say they are less intelligent than most people.

Men (24 percent) are more likely than women (15 percent) to say they are “much more intelligent” than the average American. White people are more likely to say the same than Hispanic and black people.

So, this many smart people must mean that, on the whole, the United States ranks pretty high in intelligence, right?

Not quite. According to the survey, just 44 percent of Americans say that Americans are “averagely intelligent.” People who make less than $40,000 a year are much more likely to say that their fellow Americans are intelligent, while those who make more than $100,000 are far more likely to say that Americans are unintelligent.

The results are not surprising. Western cultures have a habit of inflating their self-worth, past research has shown. The most competent individuals also tend to underestimate their ability, while incompetent people overestimate it. Not out of arrogance, but of ignorance—the worst performers often don’t get negative feedback. In this survey, 28 percent of high school graduates say they are “slightly more intelligent” than average, while just 1 percent of people with doctoral degrees say they are “much less intelligent.”

The second sentence in the last paragraph is interesting. “Western cultures have a habit of inflating their self-worth, past research has shown.” No actual study is noted, so it’s probably not true. That and how people respond to self-assessment surveys is an area of some debate. The respondent could very well be reacting to the questioner in a culturally biased way. In Japan understatement is a valued social good while in America, boasting is valued. What the respondent actually thinks is unknowable.

2 thoughts on “Average is Over

  1. It’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect. People who are stupid don’t have the sense they need to tell who is and isn’t stupid. DK had people assess their own intelligence, and then measured it. What they found was:

    The top (7-10/10) think that they are a little under the top. (6-9/10)

    The upper half (5-6) think that they are the upper half. (5-6)

    The bottom half (3-4) know that they are the bottom half (3-4).

    The absolute bottom (1-3) think that they are the top (7-10).

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